RCSD’s Djinga King-St. Louis on Afro Centric charter schools and making learning relevant for students of color

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Djinga King-St. Louis, RCSD Director of African & African American Studies (after a seminar at the Wilson Foundation Academy, 2014)

Today, in Poor scores leave an Afrocentric school in Chicago vulnerable, The New York Times reported that low test scores have prompted the Chicago Public Schools to recommend closing the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, an African-centered charter school.

As discussed in the article, Afro Centric schools were first founded in the 1970s, primarily using Black Power educational principles. Their numbers peaked in the 1990s, but still have a presence, especially in the most segregated inner city neighborhoods. African-Centered Schools in the U.S.

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New York Times, 2/29/16

At Sizemore, teachers address students by courtesy titles and their last names, while students call teachers “Mama” and “Baba,” meaning mother and father in Swahili.

Black culture, heritage and history is foregrounded in the curriculum, such as the strength, beauty and accomplishments of the African diaspora. Hallways adorned with images of black leaders like Dedan Kimathi, the Kenyan independence leader, and Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright. Students are taught to conduct themselves by seven ancient Egyptian virtues: truth, justice, righteousness, order, balance, harmony and reciprocity.

Each day opens to the beat of traditional African drumming. Students raise their right fists to salute both the American and the red, black and green Pan-African flags. As for discipline, suspension is a last resort.

While on a much smaller scale, the Rochester City School District faces challenges similar to the South Side of Chicago. To learn more, I turned to Djinga King-St. Louis, Director of African & African American Studies. Ms. King-St.Louis offered her take on the artcle and on culturally responsive teaching.

I am not too sold on themed charter schools, except for same sex schools. I do believe same sex schools — based on much research — work.

Personally, instead of more Afro Centric charter schools, I would like to see more Afro Centric ideas infused into public schools. For example, “Harambee” — Swahili for “everyone coming together.” Freedom School summer enrichment programs use the “Harmambee” approach daily.  Attended by everyone in the school, Harambee is call and response and motivational cheers and chants, traditional in African celebration. Today’s “Harambee” in public elementary schools is called morning meeting, which may or may not be in every school.unnamed74E7X199

Another idea is to make learning relevant to and for students of color. This happens by mandating culturally responsive teaching for teachers so they know how to teach from that lens and mandated for administrators so that they know how to recognize it. We are way past the time for replacing 19th century academic teaching practices (designed for Eurocentric learners) with those that fit out 21st century learners (in need of multiple modes of gaining, maintaining and applying knowledge).

Also, I believe that Charter schools, in general, lose quality teachers to public school that offer better pay and benefits, which may lead to charters closing or never getting off of the ground, and ultimately lower assessment scores for students. An Afro Centric charter school may have more difficulty even recruiting quality teachers, especially if they are White. My belief is the Afro Centric concept may appear intimidating to teachers who are  highly qualified, but White and not sure if they would fit in. I’m not saying that there are no highly qualified Black teachers – there are, but not enough to staff both charter and public schools.

I basically agree with Ms. King-St.Louis. While I can not speak to the experience of people living in the South Side of Chicago, Afro Centric schools risk becoming “cultural ghettos,” where student and teacher perspectives can be too insular or, quite frankly for my taste, too much like parochial schools.

From my experience in RCSD schools — based on observation and not empirical evidence — students want less segregationThey may not want to move to the suburbs, but students know the current  90% minority to 10 % white ratio is dysfunctionally out of kilter. As for more Afro Centric ideas and practices, I’ve heard both sides (anecdotedly again). Some students say they get plenty of African-American history and literature; others feel — some passionately — that the New York State mandated curriculum, especially in social studies, is still too focused on Eurocentric political history.

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