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February 2011 Vol. 18. No. 4 Focus on School Closings

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Why aren't African-centered charters running turnarounds?

Overhauls of poor inner city schools are now big business nationwide, but some successful school operators are still on the sidelines.

By by Benjamin Herold on Feb 2, 2011 06:32 PM
Photo: Benjamin Herold

Imhotep Institute Charter High School 10th grader Briana Brownlee. The school strives to offer students "a total immersion of their culture."

By many indicators, Imhotep Institute Charter High School is one of Philadelphia’s most successful high schools. 

Imhotep sends more of its graduates – 66 percent – to college than any other charter school in the city. 

And last year, the school’s 525 students, 99 percent of them African American and 87 percent low income, had proficiency rates above 70 percent in reading and math. 

Just as importantly, says 10th grader Khaliah Arrington, Imhotep’s African-centered approach creates a nurturing atmosphere that more traditional schools can’t match.

“They teach you like your family teaches you,” says Arrington.

“At other schools, you might get good academics, but when you go to Imhotep, you learn about yourself.”

With the School District of Philadelphia actively shopping for successful charter operators to manage its lowest-performing schools – many of which are almost entirely African-American – Imhotep might seem a natural fit.

But during the second year of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative, neither Imhotep nor any of Philadelphia’s six other African-centered school operators will be in the mix to manage schools.


A national issue

The dynamic is not unique to Philadelphia.

There are no African-centered school operators in the country participating in the current wave of school turnarounds, says Taki Raton, an adjunct professor of education at Springfield College in Milwaukee and the founder and former principal of the African-centered Blyden Delaney Academy there.

“Ironically, people do not turn to us to do this work,” Raton says.

That’s partially because African-centered operators as a group lack the capacity to make sure they have a seat at the table when large reforms like school turnaround are rolled out, he says. 

Many are also reluctant to make the necessary compromises in order to participate in such mainstream reform efforts.

Imhotep founder and CEO Christine Wiggins, for example, says she was approached by Philadelphia School District officials about applying to be a Renaissance provider, but decided against it.

“I don’t want to play the game,” Wiggins says.

Wiggins wants to grow Imhotep, but her preference would be to expand her existing school to accommodate a 500-family waiting list.

That strategy is born in part from deep skepticism of the District’s support for the African-centered approach.

Wiggins, who worked for the District for over two decades before opening her school, says flatly that the District “was not going to approve any [Renaissance applicant] who was culturally relevant.”

A different approach

It’s true that the four Renaissance providers who took over Philadelphia schools last fall employ a set of common practices that align closely with the reforms currently favored by the Obama Administration.

While distinct, each emphasizes creating an “achievement-focused” school culture and remediating basic skills, and each relies heavily on student performance data to guide instruction. Children’s race and culture, to the extent that they are addressed at all, are primarily viewed as separate from the primary business of teaching reading and arithmetic.

Imhotep, on the other hand, uses a student-centered approach to give students a “total immersion in their culture,” says Wiggins.

“We tell the whole story, which says that all humankind started on the continent of Africa, and we find out what’s important to [students] and use that love to stimulate [their] want for learning.”

The school uniform at Imhotep is black pants and a dashiki, and the halls are lined with flags of African nations. Lessons in all subjects are infused with African history, and all students take part in a “rites of passage” process focused on formally preparing them for adulthood.

“Last year, we were blindfolded [as part of an exercise], showing us how it was on the slave ships,” said 10th grader Arrington of the rites of passage process. “Each year it gets more intense.”

Students are prepared not just for standardized tests or even college, say school leaders, but to become “intellectual warriors” working for the “redemption of African people.”

That kind of focus on creating a positive racial identity can make a big difference for Black children, says Howard Stevenson, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“If you have a school that is teaching race consciousness, it can help [students] emotionally and academically,” Stevenson says. 

“Kids develop coping strategies, and they don’t feel like they have to overreact – or underreact – to stressful situations.”

Rallying the operators

But while there are highly regarded African-centered schools in many cities across the country, including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Kansas City, there has not yet been any national research systematically assessing the model’s effectiveness.

In fact, there is no general agreement on the number of African-centered schools currently operating, in part because there are no broadly accepted criteria for what constitutes “true” African-centeredness.

Those realities point to a deeper cause of African-centered schools’ marginalization in wider school reform efforts, says Amefika Geuka, co-founder of the Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba Charter School in West Palm Beach, Fla. 

“It’s been extremely difficult to get [African-centered] charter operators to come together,” Geuka says. “We are not taking care of the business of organizing ourselves.”

Last year, at age 69, Geuka walked 1,069 miles from West Palm Beach to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the need for African-centered education for Black children, but the impact of his effort was limited.

“You have Black folks who say they want a better education for their children, but they can’t define what they mean by that,” says Geuka, explaining the paucity of Black parents demanding African-centered education.

African-centered school operators have struggled to build collective capacity, he adds, partly because of old ideological debates and partly because of the demands of running their schools.

The experience of Philadelphia’s largest Black-run charter operator, Universal Companies, highlights this dynamic.

Universal, which operates three charters, including two Renaissance turnarounds, would like to be more African-centered, said President and CEO Rahim Islam.

But the organization’s founders felt that adopting such an approach early on would have compromised their ability to grow.

“We made a strategic organizational decision early on that we had to crawl before we could walk,” said Islam. “The first thing we had to do was build the capacity to open a school. We couldn’t do both.”

Regardless of the challenges, says Geuka, African-centered operators are “showing no vision whatsoever.” 

“It’s going to be as lucrative to have a charter to operate a public school as it is to have a franchise to operate a McDonald’s. We need to have schools in order to make sure we are in a position to get our children’s proportionate share of the resources.”

With the rapid growth of large charter management organizations capable of running numerous schools across multiple cities and states, he adds, that need is ever more urgent.

The fast-growing network of so-called “No Excuses” charter schools, for example, includes several organizations – the majority of which are headed by Whites – that have positioned themselves to capitalize on the seismic shifts underway in American public education.

KIPP, for example, is the best-established “No Excuses” provider, already operating 99 schools in 20 states serving 27,000 students – 95 percent of them African-American or Latino.

Furthermore, major philanthropic groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continue to support the expansion of many “No Excuses” operators, and independent capacity-building organizations like the New Schools Venture Fund support the replication and dissemination of their models. Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia is a local charter operator that has benefited from that support.

“I have no competition with a KIPP or a Mastery, because I don’t have the money to have a competition with them,” says Wiggins.

“We’re all just trying to fight for our lives.”

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the print edition of the Notebook.

About the Author

Freelance writer Benjamin Herold is a member of the Notebook editorial board. Notebook coverage of African-centered schools is underwritten by AAKT Concepts.

Comments (29)

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 17, 2011 7:28 pm

 These charter schools are doing what charter schools were originally intended to do...develop innovative approaches that would inform and challenge traditional public schools.   We should be learning and applying what they are doing right.   That their successes are being ignored in the current "turnaround" debate is significant.   White corporate folks are the authorities on how to fix predominantly black inner city schools and community based African American educators are largely excluded from the conversation.   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 8:05 pm

I didn't know Universal were white corporate folks.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 8:46 pm

Members of the Nation of Islam.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 8:33 pm

I didn't know the people at Universal were white folks.

Submitted by Phillyteacher (not verified) on February 17, 2011 7:53 pm

What?? Am I missing something? You are accusing the district of discriminating against African culture when you plainly state that an african centered charter was offered the chance to apply to do so and turned them down. Wow, just wow.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on February 17, 2011 8:36 pm

Hi, just to clarify, the point of this piece is not about the District discriminating, it's a look at why these successful schools are not doing turnarounds--both in Philly and nationally. As you point out, the District approached Imhotep, and they declined.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 8:08 pm

How many of the students are going to Cheyney University? They have no admission requirements. Is this another hoax?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 8:12 pm

Why the cynical racism? Ron makes a valid point. Most of the favored charters are run by by people and it would be naive that race isn't a factor. My feeling is that the best way to ruin something reallly authentic, as opposed to a test-taking factory, is to replicate it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 10:49 pm

Are you implying that Dr. Ackerman is racist? She is the one that makes these selections.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 10:36 pm

I am stating that the previous post was racist.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 8:53 pm

There are several charters that send more than 66% of its graduates to charters. Please check your facts before posting something like this.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on February 17, 2011 11:22 pm

 Here is our source - District data based on the National Student Clearinghouse. These are the best numbers we have available.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 18, 2011 7:35 am

I appreciate your diligence on this. Not sure you are aware but these numbers are not even close to being corrct. They do not count graduating seniors. The rates are based on where the kids attended as Freshman. If a kid went to a charter for 9th grade, then left or got kicked out and subsequently attended a local HS, it counts against the charter if the child doesn't attend college even though the child wasn't at the CS the last three years. This artificially lowers the graduation rate of the charter. The district has the ability to correct this formula but chooses not to. This would actually make a good article to follow up on.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on February 17, 2011 9:09 pm

This is a really thought provoking piece. I understand what Wiggins was talking about when she said she didn't want to "play the game." I also feel her when she talked about the cultural relevancy of her school. I got the chance to work part time at a small charter a few years ago whose focus was also on culture, but from a different angle (through folk arts). I learned so much there, both from my colleagues and from my students. It was deep work. I am glad that these schools are not playing ball with the current "reform" trend, though I realize "glad" is trite here. I wish we had a chance to learn more from each other, but the powers that be are all about pitting us against each other.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2011 9:08 pm

Charters will unique missions are not replicated. The charters which are funded (KIPP, Mastery, Universal) are those that get corporate funding. Corporate U.S. will not fund a charter that does more than perpetuate the mantra of "achievement" through test scores.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 18, 2011 4:49 pm

I didn't know Universal were white corporate folks"

Universal is a small fry in the Turnaround world dominated by Bill Gates, Eli Broad the various academic think tanks that have sprung up as the Turnaround industry has picked up steam.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 19, 2011 8:01 am

I thought we were talking about Philadelphia. How many charters run multiple schools? How many charters run renaissance schools? Universal is one of the BIG players and one of the very few that have done turnarounds. Read the criteria before you start race baiting. Read the "Universal Plan" . Open you eyes, man. Ackerman runs the school district with an iron fist and if anything, the politics have favored African-American charter operators, especially in the beginning. Don't pull that crap here. I am thrilled to see schools like Imhotep and Richard Allen. The district is opressing charters but IN THIS CASE, it has nothing to do with race.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 19, 2011 8:07 am

 Locally the biggest player is Mastery which has half a dozen schools and will undoubtedly get more.   Unlike Universal which functioned as an EMO until recently Mastery has run its schools as charters from the beginning.   Mastery's board is chaired by Jeremy Novak, president and CEO of The Reinvestment Fund and deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank's Philadelphia Board.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 19, 2011 10:33 pm

Both organizations have done a tremendous service to the community. Why are they being disparaged. It's the district that is harming the children of this city. I don't buy into the big bad corporate BS. People vote with their feet and there is more choice in this community than there ever has been and charters do a better job with 20% less money. Black/White/Hispanic/Asian, I don't think it matters who is running the chartrs as long as their is opportunity to open more schools, which there isn't thanks to Ackerman, and as long as there are sufficient charter school slots open to students, which there also isn't thanks to Ackerman.

I don't care who is on the board at Mastery. Ron, have you been in any of their schools and talked to the parents/students? I have...It's a fantastic environment.

Why is that a problem that Mastery is doing well. Maybe they deserve to. You need to get past this cultural bias of yours. At least you managed to not mention race in this last post.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 20, 2011 8:35 am

 I concede that Mastery has made some impressive gains in the schools they have run.   While I haven't really studied what they do up close, my sense is a good part of their success comes from establishing a whole school culture where everyone is on the same page in terms of instruction, discipline etc.   I have issues with the direct instruction approach they employ, but there ought to be room for different models within the school system.  I agree we should strive to understand what they do and borrow their best practices in traditional public schools.

I do care about who runs schools.   Public schools need to be transparent and their leadership accountable to the public.  Bankers and Corporate CEOs are experts in making money, not educating children.    I think the market model of schooling espoused by many charter school supporters and voucher advocates will deepen social and racial inequality (sorry, had to get that in.)   

As for Universal, while they certainly have provided some important services in their community, their track record in education is open to question.   In the minds of many the District has not made a plausible case for turning over Audenreid, a school that is improving on its own, to Universal.   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 21, 2011 8:05 am

There IS a cultural inequity present and it IS skewed racially. I don't have a problem with that. And I honestly don't care for the Universal or Mastery model BUT they are both doing a good job and parents aren't forced to attend either. I do have a problem with saying only black people should run black schools or that they should be preferred. You didn't say that explicitly but the tone of several conversations seemed to be heading down that path. However, I do understand the bias against people of color that has been against them by certain district staff in the past. That might have been the case with the outsourcing of district contracts and services in the but I know the charter operator selection process is headed up by Dr Ackerman and the oppression that exists is on ALL charters.

I think we need more corporate people involved with education not less. The public sector and unions have destroyed it. ( Sorry, had to get that in). But there certainly needs to be a balance. The MBA types need to work on the finances and facilities and push as much money and resources into the classroom as possible. The Principal is the EDUCATIONAL leader of the school and should make educational decisions.

The expansion of charters in this city has certainly been messy and no one is saying there won't be any failures... just like when our country was founded. It is very much a spiritual battle. There will be individuals that succumb to their sins and inequities in every organization and there is a spiritual enemy working against us. However, no country has ever taken on that battle and come out standing as many times as we have. Suffering leads to perseverance, character, and ultimately hope. Let's recognize the opportunity that exists for our children and receive the process right now as an act of grace.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 21, 2011 9:21 am

 Just to be clear I don't think only black people should run black schools.   I do think that black people have been denied an equal voice in  education and that needs to be addressed.  To take one example In Philadelphia, a majority black school district, is run by the state.   Philadelphians do not have the democratic right that other Pennsylvanians have to elect a school board to make policy.   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 21, 2011 1:09 pm

I think there needs to be more choice and opportunity all around. Opening up the authorizing process is one way to do so and truly eliminating caps will also help. Do we let the district continue to degrade over time and die a slow miserable death dragging down the children unable to escape with it? I think we need to close 40-50 schools, cut the central office bureaucracy (you can start with the devils on the third floor), lean out expenditures, and open up authorizing.

Less charters is not the answer, more accountability is helpful but isn't a solution, and the status quo stinks. The charter situation needs to get better so where do we go from here?

Also, I don't think the 'effect' of the SRC has been to take away the voice of the black community. I think it is being expressed on the board, albeit by appointment, which you can argue isn't democracy - but I wouldn't want to go back to the way it was before either. I don't think race is the issue. Would you be satisfied if all the appointees were black? No, the crux of it comes down to the community having a voice, whatever race you are. What decisions has the SRC made that the black community has not been in support of? I would argue that it is being heard. I really think you need to stop redirecting your blame. Do I need to remind you of Mayor Street's proclamation? Who is running the mayor's office and the school district? Let's deal with the issues and decisions.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 21, 2011 8:09 am

Question Ron, what effect to this point has the charter school process had on inequality of education in Philly?

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 21, 2011 9:16 am

Charter schools have provided the means for the children of some parents to "escape failing schools."   Some of the charters they escape to are failing as well at least in academic terms but generally they are safer and more orderly so parents are, more often than not, happy that they had the opportunity.   Therein lies the popularity of charters.   As long as so many traditional public schools are dysfunctional, its hard to argue with the choices these parents have made.

Voucher and charter proponents are now framing their efforts as the civil rights movement of our time.  But the civil rights movement did not focus on escaping schools but transforming the system so that all children received a decent education.   

The impact of charters schools (and the proliferation of magnet or special admission schools as well) has been to weaken the traditional neighborhood schools and make their improvement more difficult.  The families that took advantage of choice tend to be the more motivated people who provide much of the social capital that effective schools rely on.   

The foundation of a successful system of public education must be well resourced, effectively managed neighborhood schools that assure all students will get a good education.   I think the focus on choice has undercut efforts to realize this goal.   

What is emerging in Philadelphia today is a multi-tiered system with the bottom tier consisting of schools serving the neediest, poorest students and not doing it very well. The system is more segregated than before.   We can't put all of this on charter schools certainly.   Nor should we be demonizing teachers and their unions  Improving public education in cities like Philadelphia isn't a simple fix.   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 20, 2011 12:46 am

The unfortunate truth is that at this point in our nation's history, the vast majority of wealth is still held by a small percentage of white business owners. Therefore, if large investments are made in urban education, a certain percentage are probably going to be made by white people. It's a symptom of an unfortunate reality. We should not treat it as the root of the problem.

In order for this to change, more minorities need to become economically successful, which in large part will depend on much better educational outcomes for these groups. Mastery isn't perfect, but it's sending a much higher percentage of students to college than the comparable neighborhood high schools (yes, I know there are many complicated issues here, but Mastery is setting up schools that have a climate that at least gives a chance for most students to experience academic success; yes, there are critiques and nuances, Mastery isn't perfect)

The vast majority of parents, and all students, couldn't care less about the race of the board members of their school, whether it be the SRC or the corporate board of a charter. If you can set up a safe, academically focused and rigorous culture, built around whatever set of values you choose (no excuses; Work Hard, Be Nice; the Imhotep values; etc.) then they will prefer your school to one that is dysfunctional, violent, and offers poor instruction. That is why the high-performing charter schools (Mastery, Imhotep, KIPP, etc.) tend to have more students wanting to enroll than room inside, while the District is bleeding students left and right.

I truly wish that the anti-charter sentiments held by some were directed towards bad schools in general, rather than trying to take the parts of the charter movement that defy the party-line criticism (Imhotep, for example) and spinning into almost "well yeah there are charters that aren't white and corporate, but we're going to make their rareness another reason that charters are bad."

I actually, in theory, don't really support charters. But having seen the education taking place in 4 different neighborhood high schools in Philly in the past three years, I can't oppose a movement that puts pressure on the District to make major improvements. Charters wouldn't be such a threat to traditional public schools if the District weren't offering something so mediocre that large numbers of parents felt compelled to seek out alternatives.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 14, 2012 9:00 pm

It's easy for charter schools to succeed when they have the ability to pick and choose their students and remove them when they see fit. In addition, they're not bound by the same contractual obligations that public schools must abide by. Many say this is a level playing field but I beg to differ.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 19, 2011 8:38 am

Gamble is a very wealthy, corporate owner. He is the face of Universal. His organization wants to create a school district on the West side of South Philly. This is the same as Mastery. Gamble is black corporate folks. Bottom line is green and greed.

Submitted by Yaa Yaa (not verified) on February 23, 2011 12:24 pm

There is no such thing as an "African - Centered" public school. The schools under the School District of Philadelphia (including chartered schools) can only be "Afro -Centric". You asked why? Politics will not allow it ! ! When government is funding education, educators can only go but so far developing and implementing an African Centered education curriculum. Students can walk around wearing kente - Eurocentric uniforms, with African mask on the walls in the halls, like the ones in the chartered schools; this does not constitute "African-Centered"

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