While Ben Chavis doesn’t tolerate daydreaming in his students, he has the imagination of a child. He likes to think of himself as the pirate captain of the American Indian Public Charter School. In this particular reverie he is the terror of the USS Oakland Unified, a leaky and listing tub charting a doomed course to a mothballing in the backwaters of education.
Perhaps it’s not just in his mind. Wednesday night, the boss of the Oakland Unified School District will likely follow a recommendation from her underlings to deny Mr. Chavis’ petition to open a second charter school. That’s not so unusual. The school district denies charter petitions all the time. On Wednesday night’s school board agenda are recommendations to close two charter schools, which opened in September, as well as recommendations to reject the petitions of two more would-be charter schools.
The weird thing is that the American Indian Public Charter School posts some of the best test scores in the city. While other middle schools struggle to succeed, Mr. Chavis’ 200-student school collects accolades from the California Department of Education. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger drops by for photo-ops. The decision to deny the charter is even odder because the paperwork is not that different from a petition OUSD approved 11 months ago.
The decision to deny the petition cites nine inadequate elements in Mr. Chavis’ application. It’s possible that the school district is simply adhering to stricter standards than those followed last year, when a different state administrator managed the district. But Mr. Chavis thinks that OUSD is just toying with him. Although that’s not exactly how he put it.
Saltier language than one normally expects from a middle school principal speaking in front of students is just one of the ways Mr. Chavis differs from his counterparts in regular schools. He loves to praise No Child Left Behind, which in education circles is sort of like speaking loudly in favor of Abu Ghraib over dinner at Chez Panisse. He obviously delights in sticking his finger in the school district’s eye at every opportunity.
To continue with the pirate ship theme, he runs his school on a primitive, but effective, principle of reward and punishment. Perfect attendance and high test scores earn both teachers and students pocket money. Infractions bring students public humiliation. If he had faculty meetings they would probably include shame sessions for under-performing teachers. But Mr. Chavis doesn’t believe in faculty meetings. (For more on Mr. Chavis and the school, the Chronicle wrote a nice piece last year.)
Mr. Chavis is the first to admit his school is not for everybody. But he is also the first to crow that the principals of two Oakland public schools (one is the principal of Edna Brewer Middle School) send their kids to American Indian Public Charter.
Housed on the second-floor of a small building in the Laurel District, the school is clean, spare, and calm. On Monday afternoon, a handful of students served detention in his office. They worked on their algebra while he talked about the advantages he held over his colleagues toiling under direct control of OUSD. They are burdened by decades of laws and regulation, not to mention a troubled relationship with the teacher’s union. They are slow. He is fast.
Much of this is self-serving schtick. It’s true that Oakland Unified has done a miserable job educating students. But it’s not true that the people inside the system are content with the status-quo.
An instinctive Libertarian, Mr. Chavis is the sort of entrepreneur who never stops to think that everyone is not like him. He forgets that rules are not always bad. His school is the stunning success it is because he is only half crazy. If he were completely crazy, a school propelled on cash rewards and public humiliation could be a nightmare for students and teachers. And then the state officials knocking at the door would be of a different sort altogether than politicians looking to take pictures with high-achieving, poor minority kids. The demographics of the school are here.
Happily, Mr. Chavis is not mad, and his school has fulfilled two of the promises of recent education reform. His spectacular test scores put pressure on other schools to do better while also demonstrating methods that could be replicated elsewhere. The relentless focus on accountability gives him a solid answer to his critics. It’s hard to argue with a 920 API.
As for his new charter school, he doesn’t think OUSD will argue very long. “I’m going to humiliate them,” he says. His green eyes gleaming as if he can already see the look on his foes faces’ when they wake up and realize that Old Captain Chavis has struck again.