Future of Schools

An Indianapolis school looks to Africa to teach students “the truth about our histories”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Staff from the Historic Journey meet with teachers at Ignite to discuss how they are using Afrocentric materials.

On a Monday morning in December, fourth graders at Ignite Achievement Academy at School 42 are learning about earthquakes. In one classroom, students discussed how the earth’s plates move and collide. Down the hall, in a room decked in Christmas lights, teacher Julia Barker read her class a story about a Haitian boy trapped after an earthquake.

It’s a pretty typical day for fourth grade, but in subtle ways, the teachers are trying something new: Infusing Afrocentrism into their classes. The approach, which is being slowly incorporated in classes across the school, aims to move beyond the narrow version of black history schools often teach to highlight black contributions to civilization and leadership.

“We have to start telling the truth about our histories,” said Shy-Quon Ely II, a co-principal at the school.

Students are exposed to the approach throughout their classes. For instance, the focus on black history meant Barker’s class read a book about an earthquake in Haiti in 2010 instead of one in San Francisco in 1906. In another class, led by Jukobie Russell, students learned how the ocean current helped shape the slave trade. And when they studied motion and design, students also learned about transportation modes in Africa.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Julia Barker read to her class from a book about the Haitian earthquake.

Ignite school leaders say Afrocentrism is a way of making school relevant and personal for their students as well as instilling a sense of self-worth. It’s the kind of history many of the educators at Ignite seem to wish they themselves had learned in school.

“We were basically, indirectly and directly lied to about a lot of stuff,” Russell said. The only black historical figures he learned about in school were those who were “passive and non-threatening,” he said.

A wave of Afrocentric charter schools opened in the 1990s, but there is little research on whether the approach helps to boost test scores. Martell Teasley, the dean of the the college of social work at University of Utah, led a recent study that found that most Afrocentric charter schools were not meeting federal goals for improving test scores. Poor test scores have left Afrocentric schools in some cities vulnerable to closure.

But although Teasley does not believe Afrocentrism is a panacea for low-performing schools, he said the philosophy has benefits for helping people connect with their heritage.

School 42 is in a poor community on the northwest side of the district. Last year, 12.7 percent of students passed state tests in both math and English, about half the district average. After years of failing grades from the state, Indianapolis Public Schools converted the school to innovation status this year and brought on Ignite to manage the campus.

It is still a neighborhood school, but daily operations are handled entirely by Ignite, which was founded by two principals, Ely and Brooke Beavers, who previously co-led an elementary school in the Tindley charter network.

Nearly 80 percent of Ignite students are black, and more than 96 percent are students of color. The school has prioritized hiring diverse teachers, going to hiring fairs as far as Georgia. Fifty-five percent of their staff are people of color, and a third are men.

Beavers said that ultimately, the aim is to inspire students to become leaders who are connected to their community.

“This is a long-term goal that our children come back and they return to this community and want to make it better — they don’t flee from it,” Beavers said.

Russell, who has taught for about a decade, said Ignite’s approach is a sharp contrast to the black history that is taught in most other schools. When he was at a previous school, for example, a teacher started a black history month timeline with slavery, recalled Russell, who is black. “We didn’t come from slaves.”

Infusing Afrocentrism into his teaching has been a relatively easy transition for Russell. He was frustrated by how history was taught at his previous job, and one of the main reasons he chose to come to Ignite was the Afrocentric approach.

But for some other teachers, the curriculum is an adjustment.

In part, that’s because lots of the material they are teaching students is new for them, said Barker, who is in her second year of teaching and is white. Before she started teaching it at Ignite, for example, she wasn’t aware of how ancient Egyptians used solar energy, she said. That means she is sometimes learning history in order to teach it in her class.

“I’m learning myself,” she said. “We are at the very early stages, but I think it’s very important.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A student in Jukobie Russell’s class reads about earthquakes.

The school is trying to make the Afrocentric approach as a seamless as possible for teachers who are not steeped in black history by giving them easy access to materials. They have worked with the Historic Journey to create a guide that pairs the subjects students are studying with Afrocentric books and history. Staff from the Historic Journey also regularly visit the school to talk with teachers about how they are using the material and observe them in class.

The Historic Journey is based in Indianapolis and they have worked with other schools in the city’s largest district, as well as schools in Pike and Lawrence townships. But Gary Holland, who founded the program about 7 years ago, said that Ignite is one of the first schools he has worked with that paired the Historic Journey materials with what students are learning school-wide, so teachers do not need to do that work on their own.

Incorporating African history into the school takes work. Educators need to fit it with state guidelines. Teachers have to learn the history they are teaching and find time for to cover new subjects in crowded days. And the school has to offer training and guidance.

But ultimately, school leaders believe it will pay off for students. As one of just a few black students in his classes growing up, Ely hated studying history. When classmates talked about slavery, he wondered if they were thinking about him. The civil rights movement was compressed to a few figures and viewpoints.

That changed for Ely in college, when he started learning a broader version of black history.

“Once I had a perspective of who my ancestors were before, and their contribution to the civilizations that are in power now, that totally gave me a confidence that I didn’t have before,” he said. “I want … (students) to grow up with that confidence.”

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”