Originally published in The American Prospect on September 2nd, 2016.
Growing up in the 1960s, Bernida Thompson always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Attending high school and college during the civil-rights movement and the Black Power days, she says her dream was to work some day at an African-centered school. “A school for black children to learn who they are, where they are, what they must to do liberate themselves and their people to be successful in the world,” she explains.
After graduating college and getting a master’s, she taught in public and Catholic schools for a decade, all the while developing her own curriculum for the school she dreamed of one day opening. That day came in 1977, when Thompson became the founding principal of Roots Activity Learning Center—a private school in Washington, D.C., designed to “serve the specific needs of children of African heritage.” She served as its principal from 1977 to 1999.
Such schools began cropping up in black communities around the country, but their birthplace is widely recognized to be Washington, D.C. The first full-time independent African school—Ujamaa—opened up in 1968, founded by one of the organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and a graduate of Howard Law School. Four Howard student activists founded NationHouse in 1974. And three years later came Roots.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but those working within the field say African-centered schools peaked at around 400 in 1999, and have been on the decline ever since. When charter schools first emerged in the 1990s, some private school leaders decided to convert their African-centered institutions into charters, sacrificing their independent status in exchange for the increased financial stability that comes from receiving state and federal dollars.
Today, however, many Afrocentric charter schools are being shut down for poor academic performance and financial mismanagement.
“The [charter] rules and regulations get worse and worse every year,” says Thompson, who opened up an Afrocentric charter in 1999—Roots Public Charter School—but didn’t close down her private school, as many others did. “First they lead you on and tell you can just do your thing. But that was a come-on, and every year they’ve got more bureaucratic red tape.”
The remaining Afrocentric private schools have also suffered, as families left for less expensive charters. While Roots Activity Learning Center offered schooling from infancy up until the eighth grade, and always had a waiting list, Thompson says enrollment demand has dropped significantly over the past decade. It has become so difficult to attract students that this past school year Roots Activity Learning Center had fewer than ten students of elementary age, forcing the school to announce that it will provide only preschool education.
Conditions are similarly stressful for the Afrocentric public charter schools that still exist, which now face steep competition from all the other charter networks families can choose from. Two years ago, Roots Public Charter School had to shut down three grades due to decreased enrollment demand, switching from a K-8 school to a K-5 school. “When you haven’t had choices all your life and all of a sudden you have 85 different choices, you walk away from your culture and heritage,” Thompson says of the families that aren’t choosing her school.
WHILE THE RISE OF charter schools may once have seemed a blessing to champions of Afrocentric education, it has brought with it a host of problems. Public charters’ emphasis on standardized testing has jeopardized the standing and existence of numerous Afrocentric schools. A number of non-Afrocentric large charter chains have also taken to defending their overwhelmingly black schools as “culturally affirming” and “ethnocentric” even though their curricula aren’t Afrocentric at all. In these schools, their critics allege, “culturally affirming” is really just a cover for segregation.
Afrocentric education is not just about teaching African American history and culture, but also about centering the school’s pedagogy and curriculum on what its advocates term the values and traditions of African people. It was created, Molefi Asante, chair of Temple University’s African American Studies department, tells me, to challenge the “Eurocentric” hegemony of American public education. (Afrocentricity, Asante’s 1980 volume, is widely regarded as the bible of the Afrocentric school movement; Thompson says everyone on staff at her schools read his work.)
“The African American child must not be renters of Eurocentric information, they must be owners,” Asante says. “They have to be owners of math, owners of language arts, owners of geography.” When teaching biology, for instance, an Afrocentric school would want to connect it to Ernest Just, a pioneering black biologist who recognized the role of the cell surface in the development of organisms. “This way, the children immediately feels kinship to the subject, the child is not outside biology, biology becomes part of the child’s experience,” Asante says.
In his view, the cost of not centering Africa for an African American student is great. “If we don’t, then our children don’t have the kind of aspiration, the kind of attention and discipline that is necessary for them to advance in society,” Asante tells me. “They will learn, because children are bright, but they will not have the kind of attachment to a subject that is necessary.”
“People want to know why the children are so angry in the streets of D.C.—well, they don’t know who they are!” says Thompson. “They don’t know the power within their genes! They don’t understand that they are the chosen people; they don’t understand that, they don’t know that. They are in poverty, their parents don’t know that, and they need schools to help them know that.”
Thompson says her two schools—both the private school and the public charter—are committed to Afrocentricity, a model, she believes, that instills confidence and resilience.
ALTHOUGH MANY AFROCENTRIC private schools transitioned into charters, Afrocentric school leaders have had shaky relationships with leaders in the so-called education reform movement, particularly those who are dogged about test-based accountability.
“In my frame of reference, educational reform is taking children of African heritage and teaching them who they are, where they are, and what they must do to liberate themselves and their people,” says Thompson. “But education reform to the status quo is totally bogus. They want everyone to take the same tests, and hold them to the same set of standards—like the Common Core standards—and want to measure everyone by the same yardsticks. That’s ridiculous.”
Many Afrocentric school leaders have grown increasingly frustrated by the expectations that they will meet certain annual student achievement benchmarks; they say these demands encroach on the autonomy they were promised originally by the charter movement, and that their curricular creativity and freedom is inhibited.
Earlier this year, five scholars published a research study looking at Afrocentric charter school student performance based on statewide standardized tests. The researchers found that only 34 percent of those schools identified for the study achieved or exceeded statewide standards. They concluded that increased attention to testing is “paramount to greater acceptance and public legitimacy” of Afrocentric charters.
Indeed, low-test scores have led to the closure of many Afrocentric charter schools across the country. Imani Education Circle Charter School, one of the oldest charters in Philadelphia, closed permanently in June, after local officials revoked its charter for poor academic and financial performance. Imani joins other Philadelphia Afrocentric charters that have had their doors shut in recent years.
Last November the Chicago Board of Education voted to close Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, an Afrocentric charter, citing not only its significantly low national test scores, but also scores well below the city median. Supporters of Barbara A. Sizemore mounted a public campaign to fight its closure, pointing to, among other things, the emotional and cultural value it provides for its students. While the Illinois State Charter School Commission decided to keep Barbara A. Sizemore open, overriding the Chicago Board of Education, the experience highlighted the school’s precarious situation.
Martell L. Teasley, one of the researchers involved in the study on Afrocentric charters, told The New York Times that these schools generally cannot compete politically and financially with large charter networks, and “they’re more demonized” because they’re black. When school boards are looking to make budget cuts, he said, African-centered schools with low-test scores appear to be soft targets. Defenders of Imani Education Circle Charter School argued that their test scores were comparable to other charters that weren’t slated for closure, and were better than some district schools.
“[The charter authorizing officials] seem to be aiming at all the independent [charter] schools they can pick on,” a member of Imani’s board told The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a nonprofit news site. He said officials never target the large charter networks like KIPP, Mastery, and Universal for closure, despite Imani having higher test scores than some of these schools.
The Kamit Institute for Magnificent Achievers, a D.C.-based Afrocentric charter, was slated for closure in 2010, with the D.C. Public Charter School Board citing its low test scores, high truancy rate, governance shortcomings, and other issues. In 2008, only 10 percent of its students were scoring proficiently in math, and only 22 percent scored proficiently in reading.
The school fought to reverse the authorizer’s decision, but the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the closure in 2012.
“We all fought that closure, but we don’t have the power, and as time went on things just got more and more bureaucratic,” recalls Thompson. “Grassroots people, people within the community, regular folk like me, we all fought against closing Kamit. I live right down the street from my school. I live right in the trenches. I don’t live off in Capitol Hill somewhere or out in Maryland.” Despite protest, officials said they needed higher results in order to justify reauthorizing Kamit’s charter. Such fights, and frustrations, reflect the growing tensions between choice and accountability within the education reform movement.
Other Afrocentric charters, like the Aisha Shule/W.E.B. DuBois Preparatory Academy in Detroit, and Wakisha Charter Schoolin Philadelphia, were recently closed in the middle of the school year—unusually blunt and disruptive moves for their students.
THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION around school integration has grown more pronounced over the last two years, after a long stretch of relative silence. This has, in turn, placed more pressure on the charter sector to defend their school models, which researchers find to be “more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”
As many Afrocentric charter schools have closed down, other charter operators have begun to adopt some of their rhetoric in order to justify their own overwhelmingly black and brown student compositions. They protest characterizing their schools-of-choice as segregated—rather, they say, their schools provide “culturally affirming” and “ethnocentric” environments in which racial minorities can learn.
Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, and a vocal critic of charter schools, says calling schools that are all black “culturally affirming” or “culturally specific” is just “the new flavor for rotten segregated schools” and an effort to circumvent civil rights laws.
Asante says he does not think much of schools that call themselves “culturally specific” yet lack a formal ethnocentric pedagogical method. “Afrocentricity is something that’s disciplined, it’s scientific, you have to do it that way or otherwise everything is Afrocentric simply because it’s black,” he says. Large charter networks are “fooling the community with their rhetoric,” adds Thompson. As she sees it, a school shouldn’t be considered “culturally specific” merely because it creates a space for black students to learn together.
Thompson and Asante, however, both agree that Afrocentric schools should not be considered segregated.
“There’s a difference between segregation and unity of a cultural group; they’re not the same thing at all,” says Thompson. “Segregation is having the power and the resources and refusing to give them to a group of people, or isolating them somewhere.”
Tommie Shelby, a Harvard professor of African and African American studies, says he’s not sure framing the ethnocentric schools in terms of segregation is helpful. “I can imagine that some advocates see themselves as just trying to do the best that they can for black students in a context of serious injustice, and they think—correctly—that we’re living in a time where deep social and economic inequalities make it very difficult for disadvantaged black people to have a fair shot in life,” he says. “That said, from the standpoint of the state, or from the judiciary, that’s not a position they can necessarily take.”
AFROCENTRIC SCHOOLING HASN’T always been concentrated in private schools and charters. In several cities across the country—particularly between the late 1980s and the late 1990s—school districts actually moved to implement Afrocentric curricula on a broader scale, often at the behest of local activists and black parents.
In addition to helping many private schools and charters sharpen their Afrocentric curriculum over the years, Asante has also worked as a consultant with traditional public schools to help them incorporate Afrocentricity into their classrooms.
The first city to draft Afrocentric curricula and implement it district-wide was Portland, Oregon, in 1987. Other cities, including Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., later adopted some of Portland’s materials for their own schools.
But as sociologist Amy Binder details in her book, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentricism and Creationism in American Public Schools, all these efforts eventually fizzled out or were abandoned by the end of the 20th century due to political pressure, leadership change, or some combination of the two.
One educator who worked in Atlanta during the period when its school district experimented with Afrocentric curricula was Meira Levinson, now a political philosopher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “The only required district-wide professional development that every teacher had to undergo back then was African and African American infusion into the curriculum,” she recalls.
Levinson, who taught middle school, said Afrocentricism was incorporated into every class throughout her school. The students studied the French Cameroon in their French class, and wrote essays about W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington in history class. In that sense, she notes, the presence of Afrocentric charter schools isn’t entirely novel in the American public school system.
What is new, Levinson worries, is that we may be entering a time when racial segregation is championed, rather than lamented. “I would not be opposed to schools that [incorporated] special things for their unique populations,” Levinson says, citing schools like those in the Twin Cities which cater predominately to Somali students. “If you’re going to be segregated anyway, then you should find ways to actually make use of it, and offer a better and culturally responsive education. If all of Detroit is going to be black, and if many schools in Chicago are going to be all black, then let’s at least make them the best schools we can.”
What’s problematic, she says, is when schools say they’re more “culturally responsive” not because they are adhering to a specific pedagogical program like Afrocentricism, but because they exclusively teach students who grew up in similar households.
“I do worry about the fact that racial segregation is being treated as a virtue rather than a vice,” Levinson says. “KIPP and Uncommon [another charter network] are going around celebrating serving this particular population. They are not sorry they are segregated, and that really worries me because I think that’s quite different from the [traditional] school districts. I worry about the way in which we are reverting to this idea that kids should be educated separately.”
For Levinson, integrated public schools are still the ideal. “The dilemma is if we celebrate segregated schools too much then we may forget that there is something better we can be striving for.”