Should an urban school serving black and Hispanic students try to emulate schools for affluent white kids?
In many struggling cities like Oakland, Calif., the answer has been no. That’s true in the regular public schools, where resources often don’t exist to replicate programs offered at high-income suburban or private schools, as well as among the crop of urban charter schools intent on making up for those resource deficits. Urban charter schools have been stereotyped as embracing a boot camp-like environment that elevates test prep and tough discipline, while playing down arts and athletics.
Jeff Duncan-Andrade, founder of the two-year-old Roses in Concrete Community School, believes that needs to change. At his school – for people of color, designed by people of color – the conventional wisdom about how to improve outcomes for black and Hispanic children has been turned on its head, Mr. Duncan-Andrade says. The school is designed to match up against even the fanciest independent school, with students immersed in art, athletics, and other extracurricular activities, and with less emphasis on test prep.
What’s different is the culture.
“It’s about acknowledging they’ll love ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ but also acknowledging they are black and brown kids in Oakland,” Duncan-Andrade says. “So you’ll see we hang the words of Malcolm X next to those of Dr. Seuss.”
Although Roses in Concrete largely serves black and Latino students from East Oakland, the campus is located on seven acres in Oakland’s hilly Redwood Heights section. The leafy neighborhood is two blocks from Interstate 580, which divides the city’s rich and poor.
Roses in Concrete, named after a book of poems by the late rapper Tupac Shakur, serves children in Grades K through 5, with plans to grow to a K-12 school. Students are expected to delve into the arts, with requirements that they try modern and jazz dance and ballet, experiment with eight instruments, and learn how to arrange music. These lessons are taught in the context of African, Latino, and Native American traditions. Singing, for example, includes songs in Ohlone, the language of the Native people who inhabited the Bay Area.
“[They get] everything you’d get from an elite private school, but from people who look like them,” Duncan-Andrade says. “Everyone has to try everything, and after they try it all, they can select to focus on something after school.”
It’s those extracurriculars and activities that keep Amanda Robinson, the mother of a first-grader, believing in Roses in Concrete.
“When you send your child to any new school, you are taking a risk in some ways,” says Ms. Robinson, who was raised by a white mom and a black dad in an agricultural community near Sacramento, Calif. “But anytime I have a shadow of a doubt,... the school has some kind of a performance and I see my son up there doing a style of drumming from the Ivory Coast, and I know he’s getting a kind of education I didn’t.”
Half in English, half in Spanish
The curriculum at Roses in Concrete is also dual language, something many well-to-do families have been clamoring for in recent years. At Roses, half the material is taught in English and half in Spanish.
“Some people worry about taking black youth who are already marginalized and putting them in a class where they can only speak Spanish,” Duncan-Andrade says. “But the earlier one gets comfortable with discomfort, the more one will learn.”
The idea for Roses in Concrete was born nearly a decade ago at a graduation party for some of Duncan-Andrade’s former students in Oakland. The students, nearly all of whom were headed to college, said he should create a K-12 school that would do for other children of color what he had done for them, Duncan-Andrade says. Because of this, Duncan-Andrade likes to call Roses an intergenerational project. Those intergenerational relationships are easy to see when he emerges on the playground. Students – many of them the sons and daughters of former students – run at him and climb up his tall frame.
Duncan-Andrade is the youngest of seven kids born to a Mexican-American mother and a Scotch-Irish father in Los Angeles. He remembers his family’s complicated relationship with schools.
“My mother would say, ‘Go to school, get your lessons,’ but at the same time, she grew up on the border in Arizona, so she would tell us stories about how she would have to put on a dunce cap for speaking her native language. There was this dual message about whether school was really a place for us.”
The family was constantly on the move, he says, in an effort to keep his older siblings out of trouble. He largely credits basketball for getting him to and through college. “A lot changed in fifth grade, when I went to an NBA camp and got all of these awards,” he recalls. “For the first time, I felt like there was real investment in me; there was this new narrative that I had potential.”
He believes that by exposing his students to as much art and sports as kids get at the schools with the most resources, they will have a chance to find the same sense of self-worth he found through basketball.
As for his own basketball career, that ended his second day at the University of California, Berkeley, when he tore the ligaments in his ankle. In the weeks afterward, he seriously considered dropping out, he says. He credits a series of mentors, all men of color, for persuading him to stay and eventually guiding him into teaching.
Not like schools before it
In a lot of ways, Roses in Concrete is a reaction to the wave of charter school chains that began operating around the start of this century – schools often founded by white men to serve poor black and Latino students – and that focused on test scores and college prep. But the philosophy at Roses is also a reaction to Duncan-Andrade’s own schooling, much of it at the kind of Roman Catholic school that was a model for the urban charter movement. In particular, he remembers acting out – and that only one teacher ever asked if he was misbehaving because something was wrong at home.
Now, counseling is a central feature at Roses. “The work starts on the street at 7 a.m.,” Duncan-Andrade says. “We staff the street so that every kid gets physical contact, an assessment of how [they are] coming to us....”
But even though many progressive schools shun testing, Duncan-Andrade says he can’t in good conscience toss aside test prep entirely.
“The value of test scores is giving our kids access to the kingdom,” he says. “It’s about keeping those tests in the proper place. You have to create pathways for kids to get to college, and that includes tests.”
During Roses’s first year, however, few students hit the proficiency mark on state standardized tests. Just over a fifth of third- and fourth-graders passed the English portion of the tests, and only 15 percent were deemed proficient in math.
The test scores don’t put off Robinson. She instead points to a moment with her son at Whole Foods in 2015, when he was a kindergartner, as proof Roses is working.
“I picked up a thing of strawberries,” Robinson remembers. “And my son looks up at me and asks if they were Driscoll’s, and I say, ‘Yes, they are. Why?’ And then he tells me all of this stuff about how we can’t buy them because of how they treat their farmworkers, and then he compared it to how Martin Luther King [Jr.] started a boycott after Rosa Parks didn’t [give up her seat on the bus]. This is a kindergartner. I grew up in a farming community and we never talked about any of this stuff. At this age, I’m not so worried that he understands phonics or can add or subtract. He won’t get this real education anywhere else.”
• This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
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