An African-centered success story

Test scores exceed state averages at J.S. Chick elementary school, where African-American students view themselves as leaders.

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.

"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.

How a coalition transformed Chick

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.

One premise of African-centered schools is that "black kids are brilliant, and black kids can learn - and those are two things that are seldom a part of the larger society's view of black children," says Lisa Delpit, executive director of the Center for Urban Education & Innovation at Florida International University in Miami. She tells of an African-American middle schooler who asked why she was being taught to multiply, believing black people only add and subtract while white people learn multiplication. "Children internalize the society's views," Ms. Delpit says.

Parents pledge their support

That's one reason Jennifer Gordon, chair of the parents' School Advisory Committee, is so happy with her fourth-grader Johnny's experience. "I'm a single parent, and this school has provided much more in terms of self-esteem than I could ever do at home," she says. "I want him to be a leader in the world. To know who he is. To know that he counts."

Parents learn about the philosophy and the expectations at the school and sign a pledge of support. Staff training helps everyone from custodians to teachers become effective members of "the village." Grandparents help in the classrooms. The community involvement has helped Chick achieve 99 percent attendance and a near-total absence of serious discipline problems.

"We know it is really important that every individual who works here should believe in what we are doing ... and believe that every child is capable and can learn," says Audrey Bullard, the principal who led Chick's transformation into an African-centered school. She's also mother to coordinator Bullard.

"In order for the academics to prove to be successful, as defined by state testing, students need to have a clear sense of what's expected of them," Ms. Bullard says. "So behavior and character development is so important.... If they go in with an attitude of, 'I want to show the world what I know,' then they are more apt to put forth a greater effort."

Since the black-power movement of the 1970s, African-centered education has attracted both criticism and praise.

"The danger is, when [such schools] are in the hands of people who are very ideological ... they teach stereotypes," says Gary Orfield, cofounder of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. But when it's not ideological or exclusionary, it can be a fine option, like any magnet-school theme, he says. Research suggests that "if you've got a community of teachers who really work together effectively ... and care about the kids - those things are really important."

In general, integrated schools are best, Mr. Orfield maintains, especially now that American society is so multicultural. But many urban districts continue to have a high concentration of minority students. Despite a decades-long desegregation lawsuit that ended in 2003, 70 percent of Kansas City's schoolchildren are African-American and only 13 percent are white.

The court-ordered approach in Kansas City focused on trying to attract white students by creating magnet schools with top-notch facilities and themes ranging from technology to Latin. Meanwhile, African-American teachers and families at Chick, then a neighborhood school, decided to take academic improvement into their own hands. Leaders of the African-centered movement were not pleased with the message they believed had been implied: that in order for black children to do better, they needed to wait for white role models to come sit next to them in school.

When its test scores began to rise dramatically, Chick became a magnet school. Educators have visited from as far away as Japan and Brazil, Mr. Bullard says.

One recent example of how Chick has reversed the oft-cited achievement gap between white and black students: On the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) fourth-grade math test in 2005, 48 percent of Chick students scored at the proficient or advanced level. Statewide, only 24 percent of black students and 36 percent of white students scored that high.

In 1995, the judge overseeing the desegregation case, impressed by Chick's success, agreed with a proposal to implement the African model at another elementary school, Sanford B. Ladd. Ladd went on to be recognized as one of the most improved schools in the state.

A middle school also took on the African theme several years ago, but its leadership has been in flux and it hasn't made strong achievement gains. Bullard says he believes those changes will come on the coattails of improvements in teaching and student behavior, which are under way. All three schools follow state and district curriculum standards.

Making sure that everybody fits in

Bullard and the community-based African Centered Education Task Force recently proposed a new school that would run from Grades 6 to 12, with an "early college" approach for the high school grades. A vote by the school board is expected in the next few months.

As Bullard walks through the schools, he greets teachers and parents with a hug and a call of Jambo, Swahili for "hello."

At the African-centered Clarke middle school, he shares office space with Terri Brown, cultural arts instructor for the three schools. Students take one to three classes a week in African drumming and dance, but more important, cultural arts are integrated throughout the curriculum, she says. A recent focus on dances from the Harlem Renaissance (think Lindy Hop and swing) used a timeline to explore historical events and even to prompt math exercises. As someone who has studied in Africa and under American dance greats such as the late Katherine Dunham, Ms. Brown sums up one of the school's philosophies this way: "The arts are academics."

In a computer class, African-American eighth-grader Dwayne Hathaway says he likes Clarke because "the teachers urge us on to do better in school." His classmate, sixth-grader Lucky Bui, an Asian-American who attended Chick elementary school, smiles and nods when asked if he, too, enjoys the school. "Everybody in the school makes sure everybody fits in," says Dwayne, casting a brotherly look Lucky's way.

The first part of this series, a look at Baltimore County, Md., schools, ran April 30.

Next stop: medical school

"I knew I could be anything I wanted to be," says Elisha Talbert, recalling the consistent messages from home, church, and school when she was a girl.

At J.S. Chick, an African- centered elementary school in Kansas City, Mo., Ms. Talbert immersed herself in accelerated reading and opportunities for public speaking. She sees those two skills as foundational to her success as she prepares to start medical school this fall.

At Chick, "I was able to get a perspective from my own culture, from people who have gone to Africa and studied African-American history.... I really had a lot of loyalty and understanding of who I was," she says in a phone interview.

By contrast, some of her friends at Xavier University of Louisiana - a historically black college she attended in New Orleans - had grown up in predominantly white schools. Because they didn't learn much about African-American history, "they felt almost cheated," she says.

Talbert also credits Chick with turning her into an active voter and someone who understands "the importance of giving back to your community after you excel in your endeavors." On her return to Kansas City for medical school, she hopes to visit city schools to inspire young students.

When Talbert hears concerns that African-centered schools might promote discrimination, she counters them with her own experience: "My best friend is from India.... Knowing who you are ... you have so much more to bring to the table when you communicate with people from different cultures."

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