Ben Chavis is out and about, gloriously soaking up the attention for the “miracles” he has produced. After all, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Milton Friedman-loving bodybuilder-turned-action-hero-actor-turned-governor-of-California, who visited Chavis’ school (one-half mile from my home in
"I was really impressed; everything I've read about this school is absolutely true," he said after touring the American Indian Public Charter School, off
in the MacArthur Boulevard Laurel . "It is an education miracle." District
So who am I to challenge this claim?
One of Chavis’s more recent forays into the national public limelight resulted in an incident lovingly described by Whitney Tilson, a top elite-school-trained investment manager, minor TV business celebrity, and aggressively connected Democratic, "no excuses" charter-school adoring, neo-liberal education reformer who resides in Manhattan posts his family photos for public viewing of YouTube and Picasa, and sends his own children to the exclusive upper West Side private school which served as the inspiration for Gossip Girls.
At a public education forum last April, Tilson witnessed Ben Chavis’ aggressive verbal attack on New York City Council Member Charles Barron. According to Tilson, Barron was approached by Chavis who said,
“You're a mother f-ing black pimp, you're f-ing our kids. Come to the reservation and I'll beat your ass. You want our kids to take Home Ec? YOU should wear a dress!"
Lovely, just lovely – what a great behavior to model for his students who hope to find success in the larger society.
For those of us in
Chavis’ cocky, rude public personality is not the biggest pet peeve I have about the glamorization of the American Indian Public Charter Schools. It’s that no “miracles” have been produced at the schools, yet the myth keeps getting perpetuated.
One of Ben Chavis’ major "innovations" is that he has narrowed the type of student (and parent!) who uses his schools. I’d describe his technique as "lower income parent ability grouping," along with careful culling of high performing, brown-skinned kids, such as the children of the local public elementary school principal.
Chavis has never shown that he can wrought change with the original type of student who attended AIPCS before his arrival, and these are the students who are the most needy, most resistant, and most challenging.
To me this very important detail is the one I try to impress on people by revealing the demographic changes and some personal anecdotes, such as the astonishment of a local public middle school teacher I knew who upon learning that that one of her former sixth grade students (who had transferred to AIPCS for seventh grade and was quoted in the paper remarking how well he was doing there) said, “But he was a straight-A student when he was here!”
For some reason, my argument (which I think is a very good one) rarely gets a direct response from AIPCS/Chavis defenders. They just continue on in their unbroken stride of praising the school and its accomplishments. The next level of discussion never gets reached, which is: Since traditional public schools must serve ALL types of families and students – making it impossible for them to duplicate the Chavis model – is there anything at all in the AIPCS story which could be used to make positive changes elsewhere?
Honestly, we must face the fact that Chavis’ magic only works with compliant students and parents. If they aren’t sufficiently compliant, they either don’t apply to the school, or they withdraw from it when they realize that what goes on there is just too much.
Automatically, the school contains a set of students and parents who are pre-dedicated to doing exactly what Chavis demands in terms of school assignments, attending school, and behaving well.
What principal wouldn't succeed under those circumstances?
The school’s approach is well known by now. Students and parents are required to commit to a behavior contract, of which there is the expectation of strict adherence. Parents and students are made aware of the specific consequences for not meeting those expectations, then the school is given full authority to act in whatever way it needs to in order to enforce the expectations.
For the students/parents who stray off course, Ben Chavis' model is to apply intense pressure on them in an attempt to force compliance, and I’m sure it works in many cases. Humiliation and fear of being humiliated can work wonders; it's a well-known torture tool.
The consequences for non-compliance probably range from reasonable to intolerable, depending on one’s personal view. I personally wouldn’t mind if my children were forced to pick up garbage if they were caught littering, but I would have a huge problem if the principal dressed them down by screaming profanity in their faces.
At any rate, the pressure does become so intense at AIPCS that students and parents will withdraw from the school if they are unable or unwilling to comply. Over time, this distills the school's population into an ever-more-compliant and timid set of students and parents; a certain factor in making test scores rise.
Just think what all our schools would be like if they only contained students and families who had been whittled down to be the ones who were most compliant? This situation is probably every principal’s and teacher’s ultimate fantasy.
So the next big question for me is why doesn’t my school district give the traditional public schools some sharper teeth so they can demand and enforce compliance, too? And how much, realistically, could students and parents be actually forced to comply? I’m talking about forcing them to show up in classes on time, where they are forced to do the assigned work and behave appropriately. No excuses. What happens to the ones which don’t comply might have to be actually addressed at some point.
I will say loud and clear that many urban secondary school parents and teachers long for stronger, more consistently-followed discipline policies at their schools. For some reason, there is a lack of motivation at administrative levels, and a lack of manpower or know-how to implement the policies which exist. Rather than taking the time to become involved and pressure the schools to deal with this situation, many of the most compliant and responsible parents just flee the system to the suburbs or the charters – causing mechanical erosion of the public schools.
In the meantime, public school districts could either make a choice of just sitting by and watching more and more of their most compliant and responsible families get siphoned off by charter schools which are permitted to operate by different rules, or they could become proactive and find a way to give their traditional public schools sharper teeth for competing with the charters. Or, the districts could actually insist that charters take, and keep, their fair share of the most difficult-to-educate students.
Ben Chavis presence in the media is all about sensationalism. The attention he constantly gets is totally out of proportion to his accomplishments because, given the big picture, only a tiny number of students have ever attended his schools. It’s as if no public school students in
So despite his 15 minutes of fame, Chavis overall contribution to improving schools and public education reform will prove to be negligible, because it will be impossible to take his cherry-picking approach to scale. And although in my opinion many schools could definitely use more structure and consistent discipline, it's only the dream of people like Tilson – who are quite out of touch with the realities in these schools – that widespread strict compliance can be forced upon the hungry, neglected, and very angry children of our vast underclass.
A few weeks ago, when Chavis’ commentary entitled, “Who says public schools need more money?” appeared on CNN.com (a feat no doubt arranged by his book promoters; I guess a movie, mugs and t-shirts are next), he failed to mention that his own schools have been the recipients of generous supplementary funding courtesy of the Walton Family Foundation.* It is known in Oakland that when Chavis was on-site as the AIPCS principal, he only drew a negligible salary because he had considerable personal income sources from elsewhere (property ownership). That difference probably accounts for how he helped pay for some extras at his school, like giving cash rewards to students. No extra money needed, indeed.
Here’s one last piece of local gossip about AIPCS recently relayed to me by another local parent. It might be true or not, but the source is definitely reliable. Apparently, an AIPCS student who was sick with Swine Flu and was coughing blood a few weeks ago was told by the school to “come anyway.” What a great example of “no excuses” perfect attendance, which is worth any cost to some, I suppose.
*Information from the National Center for Charitable Statistics:
2005 Form 990 (for grants given in 2004)
- American Indian Public Charter School = $20,000
In 2004-05, the total student enrollment was 150 kids. Only one school was in operation. From his Walton sources, Chavis received an additional $133.33 to spend on each student that year.
2006 Form 990 (for grants given in 2005)
- American Indian Public Charter School = $230,000
In 2005-06, the total student body was 196 kids. Only one school was in operation. From his Walton sources, Chavis received an additional $1173.47 to spend on each student that year.
2007 Form 990 (for grants given in 2006)
In 2006-07, the total student body of this high school was 72 kids. Two schools were in operation that year, AIPCS and AIPHS. From his Walton sources, Chavis received an additional $3194.44 to spend on each student at his high school that year.