An African-centered success story
Test scores exceed state averages at J.S. Chick elementary school, where African-American students view themselves as leaders.
KANSAS CITY, MO.
Before starting their project, a quartet of fifth-graders at J.S. Chick elementary school decides to make a pledge. They raise their right hands and promise they'll do their best work to honor Malcolm X. Then they busily create a collage and an essay about his life as a civil rights leader, a one-time prisoner, and a Muslim.Skip to next paragraph
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"He influenced me to be my best at everything I want to do ... and to set goals in order to achieve," a wide-eyed Mariah Wright declares when asked what she's learned from studying Malcolm X.
Down the hall, half a dozen fourth-grade boys in the "Tanzania" classroom gather in a line, facing a student leader. They march in place with one arm raised as if holding a shield. Among the chants they offer up, based on an African rite of passage, is an affirmation of unity: "Together we will work. Together we will win."
At Chick, everything from the curriculum to the interactions between teachers and parents is based on the history and culture of Africa and its diaspora. A public magnet school, it welcomes people of all backgrounds, but 99 percent of its 300 students are African-American.
Its success is measured not only by test scores that are above the statewide average, but also by students learning to see themselves as leaders, entrepreneurs, and contributors to the community. The African-centered approach, like many school-reform efforts focused on various themes, relies largely on family involvement and developing curriculum and teaching skills to bring out students' strengths.
As calls for closing achievement gaps grow louder nationwide, it's a model being tried or getting a closer look in cities with large African-American communities. But it's not easy to replicate. Attempts to expand African-centered education within Kansas City have at times been met with concerns that it is too narrowly focused on one racial group. And if there's instability in leadership or high teacher turnover, it can take a long time to produce academic gains.
Here in Kansas City, Mo., a grass-roots effort among African-American educators and parents transformed Chick into an African-centered school in 1991.
"For many of us who went through the public school system, the way our history was presented to us was from slavery to freedom," says Kevin Bullard, coordinator of African-centered education at several schools in the district. "With the African-centered model, we ... look at that as part of the context of our history and our struggle, but only a small piece." Their timeline includes the intellectual legacy of ancient African civilizations.
"[We] incorporate the cultural traditions and value systems into the curriculum, so if students are sitting in a math class or ... a social studies class, they're seeing themselves within the world of learning.... It becomes very empowering to them, and to parents," Mr. Bullard adds.
Each Monday morning at Chick, the whole school participates in harambee, a Swahili word for "coming together." As students drum and lead self-affirming chants and dances, the room vibrates with the cadences of a community.
Teachers call up students who have earned "rosettes" - awards for attendance, academics, and managing their behavior. It's all part of demonstrating Kujichagulia, or self-determination, one of the seven principles associated with Kwanzaa celebrations.
Family members take time off from work and line the sides of the gym/auditorium, jumping up to snap photos. "She's a hard worker, always has been," says Kevin Wells after seeing his fourth-grade daughter, Aliyah, earn a purple rosette, the highest level. "I feel like I did a good job, and I earned it," Aliyah says, taking a break from a line dance.
Parents routinely talk of their children blossoming here, gaining confidence, and coming home eager to work. While the focus on African and black American historical figures helps spark their interest, they learn broad subject matter and are prepared for a multicultural experience after Chick, says James Adams, father of a third-grade girl.