Black Pride Drives This Public School
Detroit's black academies thrive in the inner city by promoting an Afrocentric curriculum, strong discipline, and lots of enthusiasm
DETROIT — 'I am somebody. I look like somebody. I feel like somebody. I act like somebody. Nobody can make me feel like a nobody.'
Sentence by sentence, seventh-grader Oumar Cole, clad in an African kente cloth, shouts these words out to an assembly of his classmates, and they, with resounding vigor, bounce them back at him. The room rings with the thunder of a couple hundred young voices, all enthusiastically taking part in a morning ritual that's as familiar to them as the Pledge of Allegiance may have been to their parents.
The ceremony is called Harambee. It's an African-based ritual that's been adapted for this school.
It's not something you'd expect to see at a public school, but then there are many surprises at Paul Robeson Academy: the tidy, collegiate nature of the campus, the crisp navy-blue-and-white uniforms of the children, the handshakes and hugs with which the staff greet students, the small army of enthusiastic parent volunteers on-hand.
Detroit has three such public academies. All serve all-black or virtually all-black student populations and teach Afrocentric curricula. There are two similar schools in Milwaukee and one in Minneapolis.
Detroit's black academies were first conceived of in 1991 as a way to deal with the discipline and academic problems of black male students in the public school system. They have generated controversy since the day they first opened. The courts quickly struck down the notion of all-male public schools, and all three were forced to accept girls. Enrollment today is about half female. White students are free to apply, and there have been a handful at the school at times, although none are there now.
What troubles the critics of these schools is a concern that studying at an all-black school will not help these kids to find a place in the larger society, to feel comfortable with their white peers.
"No school that is not integrated can provide a quality education," insists Charles Willie, a sociologist and Charles William Eliot professor of education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Diversity is one of the No. 1 concepts of a good education." Students at either an all-black or an all-white academy, says Professor Willie, who is African-American, are receiving "a deficient education."
But, respond some supporters, diversity is not realistic in a school system like Detroit, where 91 percent of students are African-American. "Sure, a mix is important," says a principal at another Detroit school. "But let's face it, Detroit is the most racially polarized area in the US."
A school like Paul Robeson, which educates 1,000 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, may actually be the best means of challenging that polarization, insists Ray Johnson, the school's charismatic principal. "We're not giving up on being together," he argues. "Giving [the students] a strong sense of their own identity is not to keep them from full participation in the larger society, but to facilitate it."
A focus on their African heritage is one of the ways Paul Robeson builds the self-esteem of black children, Mr. Johnson explains. "It's a way of healing the effects of racism," he says. "And it fortifies [the students]." Emotional and cultural strength, he says, will allow "people to come together by choice, standing on their own two feet."
'You are descendants of kings and queens and you must know that. You must begin to act like kings and queens. Remember that you are somebody and not just anybody, but kings and queens.'
Mr. Murray, a fifth-grade teacher, is speaking now. The boys and girls have their eyes closed and their palms turned upward. One or two kids squirm, one slips into sleep, but most demonstrate serious concentration.
Paul Robeson Academy was launched in 1994 in the basement of another public school with 125 students. The school has moved twice since its inception, and today makes its home in an imposing structure that was an orphanage. It is one of 50 schools of choice in the Detroit public school system, allowing any Detroit resident to apply for a place.
Last year the school received more than 6,000 applications for 100 openings. The grades and backgrounds of the students are taken into account, with special consideration given to neighborhood children and those with siblings already at the school.
The school's Afrocentric education, explains Frankie James, guidance counselor at Paul Robeson, is appropriate for students of any background. "African history is really world history," she says. While African history and tradition is an important focus for the school, so is an overall international outlook. Languages offered at different times at the school have included French, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, and Japanese. School trips have gone to Africa, and more are proposed to Europe and Latin America.
Randy Goins, parent of a fourth-grade daughter at the school and a son who recently graduated, says he likes the idea of an Afrocentric curriculum, but that's not why he picked this school. "First, it was the academics, then the personality and vision of the staff," he says.
Dr. Goins, a podiatrist, doesn't mind that the school is not integrated. Attitudes about race, he says, are taught at home. "You can have all the integrated systems you want, but if the kids are taught something else at home it doesn't do any good."
'I know why they call you a sunset. 'Cause you set your lovely rays down on us and you make oranges and yellows and reds on the earth. And the earth feels joy and warmth and peace.'
The Harambee concludes with an African poem intended to teach the students "gratitude and respect for nature," Johnson says. As the kids file out of the auditorium, they must shake the hand of each adult present. They are gently reminded to keep their handshakes firm and to make good eye contact.
Michigan state test scores show fourth-graders at Paul Robeson comfortably outscoring their peers at the state and district level in both math and English. Many credit both the academic success of the school and its morale to the can-do style of leadership Johnson exhibits. He has recruited top-notch teachers and expends much energy in harnessing parental and local business resources for his school.
William McLin, a sixth- and seventh-grade language-arts teacher, says he hopes to continue working at Paul Robeson as long as possible. "If could sum it up in one word, it's love," he says of the school. "There's a lot of caring here."
Fifth-grader Adrian Redmond says he's happy to have come here from his former school. "There's less fighting here," he says. "And the uniforms look good."
Janet Schofield, social psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has long studied school desegregation, says she finds little fault with a school like Paul Robeson. "If it's possible to be in a multiracial, multiethnic environment, it's by far the best," she says. "But if the focus at a school is primarily on giving kids a good solid education and creating a sense of hope and pride I don't have concerns about that."
* Second of two parts. The first part, on busing, ran Sept. 29. Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org