Education in Oakland

The USS Oakland Unified

Posted by novometro on February 14, 2007

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.


10 Responses to “The USS Oakland Unified”

  1. KC said

    He will humiliate them by going over their heads.

    Local jurisdictions are almost powerless when it comes to regulation and oversight over charters. As soon as they deny the charter application, the operator goes to the state and they approve it in most cases.

    Interesting to note that Chavis’ methods are very, very similar to the approach taken in KIPP schools. The heavy emphasis on discipline and shaming is not a replicatable model. It works pretty well for those kids and those families that sign up for it (except that it also seems to suffer tremendous attrition as kids burn out), but it stands no chance of reaching the most troubled kids. I’m not saying that it is without merit, but it is not some sort of silver bullet either.

  2. Deckin said

    KC writes that the model of KIPP and Chavis is not ‘a replicatable’ model. Yes, it works with those whose parents sign up for it (read, care about the education of their children enough to put in the time to get them to one of those schools), but it won’t work for the ‘most troubled kids.’ Well, right now the OUSD isn’t working for the ‘most troubled kids’ and it isn’t working for the vast majority of the others either. So, I guess the perfect is, yet again, the enemy of the good. Shaming may not work immediately on all, but one would think that watching the neighbor’s kids go on to college while yours are stuck at Best Buy (if they’re lucky) might be sufficient incentive, no? What a radical idea: That people might actually observe those with more success and immitate them. Of course, to believe that, you’d have to faith that, ultimately, people can run their own lives just fine if given the chance, but I know that’s stepping on the toes of some dearly held beliefs in the teacher’s union.

  3. […] by novometro on May 9th, 2007 The East Bay Express has an article this week about the antics of Ben Chavis, the principal of American Indian Public Charter School. I’m glad to see that he might have […]

  4. Caroline said

    The East Bay Express article does not portray a sane man.

    Do we actually believe that someone this out-of-control is somehow too ethical to cheat on his school’s test scores? That seems like an incredibly naive level of trust to me. Charter schools get no oversight whatsoever, and are perfectly free to cheat their brains out if they so choose.

  5. Larry said

    Hi, I am a graduate of A.I.P.C.S. and I cannot understand why you would think that he could cheat any of the scores? Although dr. chavis is a crazy man, and he will tell you that to your face, he would never change any answers on a test, send in false documentation or anything like that. In fact, he doesn’t give us some of the credit we deserve, but only to make us work harder. If you don’t believe me, think of all the kids from the school that are in great colleges. I am attending Oberlin College with a full ride. Edward m. is attending Dartmouth and there are many students in the UC system at this moment. If you would like, you can e-mail me or I can get you into contact with any of my other classmates and we would be willing to speak with you about any misguided ideas that you may have about the school or the man that has kept it afloat.

  6. Valarie Lee said

    Prayers to you Dr. Chavis. I know you to be a good man at heart and have only the best interest in our Native youth and want them to succeed in life. The “truth shall set you free.” I read the articles on you and know you are doing some remarkable things in education. You were an inspiration to me when I decided to go back to college and wanted to ‘thank you’ for the help you gave me, as I became a National, State and Regional award-winning television and print journalist. Thank you for your encouragement and positive energy. Your White Mountain Apache friend from Arizona, Val Lee (Bear Clan)

  7. said

    Im from East Oakland.

    I went to Mills. Head Royce. King Estates Middle. Brookfield Elementary.

    Now that we have the cited authority out of the way.

    1. White people are intimidated by Chavis because he teaches the way a Black momma doesn’t mind disciplining her child in the street.

    Without remorse.

    2. Some of Chavis behavior, I don’t agree with. HOWEVER, as a current law student, there is NOTHING MORE HARMFULL THAN OPENLY AND EXPRESSIVELY TELLING YOUR STUDENT THAT YOU DON”T BELIEVE IN THEM.
    CONVERSLY THERE ARE VERY FEW THINGS MORE POWERFUL than believing in your students.
    I AM STILL DEALING WITH THE “SOFT RACISM of LOW EXPECTATIONS” and IM pretty f*cking resilient.

    Trust. Chavis believes in his students and the Children perform. Its called the Halo Effect, Google it.

    3. Imagine an Oakland with Ten Chavis Schools.


  8. Robert said

    Well, my older son (now ten) is at Kaiser Elementary, and doing splendidly. He’s currently in the GATE program (and can now kick my a@@ in chess), loves to read and is studying geometry.

    All this with a principal who doesn’t yell, swear or shave his student’s heads. How can that be possible? My son is African-American! Doesn’t he need to be bullied into learning? Mr. Chavis appears to think so.

    Oh, and for M. Dot. above – when my children act up/act out, they do get disciplined. Not shamed, degraded, insulted or beaten, but _disciplined_. The hard kind, where the adult has to maintain self-control and decorum, and the child gets corrected but keeps his dignity and self-respect. It’s a lot harder than swearing or hitting, but in the long run, I think it’s worth it.

  9. Howard said

    The success Mr. Chavis has had is extraordinarily important and I hope that his success is replicated far and wide. I am extrememly impressed w/ his students’ comments here as these students are demonstrably articulate and clear thinking far beyond their age. I have enjoyed the squirming of people like Carolyn who obviously are having great difficulty w/ a man who has gored all of their ancient 60s ideological bulls and I do mean bull. Afterall the droppings of Mr. Chavis’s critics’ pedagogic theories are written all over the abject failure they have brought to countless millions of high school students who cannot count. Teach Mr. Chavis teach!

  10. Laser said

    Demonstrably articulate like the law student who spells “harmful” with two l’s, “conversely” without the second e, and “I’m” without the apostrophe?

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