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Principal's Tough Stand
Turns School Around

Frustrated by what he considered low expectations and minimal structure at American Indian Public Charter School, Dr. Ben Chavis set out to reform the school by instituting no-nonsense policies regarding attendance, appearance, and instruction. And it worked. Included: Information about the American Indian Model (AIM to educate).

When Dr. Ben Chavis took over as principal of the American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) in Oakland, California, it was teetering on the edge of closure. Attendance was dismal, test scores low, and the building and grounds a mess. Chavis, a Lumbee Indian, thought the faculty was inappropriately using students' ethnicity as an excuse for not working hard or meeting expectations.

Dr. Ben Chavis

Chavis turned the school around with a get-tough approach now known as the American Indian Model (AIM to Educate) that stresses high expectations, strict standards, and no excuses. (The dress code, for example, prohibits students from wearing any makeup or jewelry, including watches.) A C- is a failing grade. Some traditional school holidays such as Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday are celebrated by having students spend the day in class. In exchange, administrators tell parents if they support the AIM approach, they guarantee their children will be prepared to graduate from college. AIM has been adopted by other schools, with similar successful results.

Now retired, Chavis talked with Education World about his philosophy of education and why he thinks AIM works.

Education World: Who or what inspired you to be an educator?

Dr. Ben Chavis: I had some very good teachers, such as. Helen Smith in the third grade, Mrs. Ransom in the fourth grade, and Mary Lamm and Ann Phillips in the sixth grade who were tough as nails; they demanded discipline and hard work. My high school track coaches, Lawrence McDuffie, Francis Bass, and Ralph Ortega ran us like greyhound dogs. They taught me that discipline and hard work were the biggest indicators of success in sports and life. Those teachers and coaches inspired me to become an educator. I love and respect each of those great teachers who pushed me to put forth my best effort.

EW: How do you think the philosophy of educating American Indian children that existed at the school prior to your arrival developed? Do you think there are certain strategies that do benefit Indian children?

Why is it controversial to discipline students who are lazy and reward hard-working students?

Chavis: There was no philosophy of educating American Indian or any other students at American Indian Public Charter School before I was hired by the school board. The school was a place where lazy adults pretended to be educators and collected a check. They seemed to have no idea as to how any student should be educated. My grandpa, Calvin Chavis, called this type of people bone heads or ticks. The AIPCS students were being cheated out of an education at that time. It continues to occur in mostly secondary schools -- the sixth through 12th grade -- throughout the United States. I know discipline, structure, accountability, and hard work are proven strategies that benefit all students in school.

EW: Some of your views and approaches might be seen by some as controversial.

Chavis: There are some individuals who see the American Indian Model (AIM to Educate) as controversial. Why is it controversial to discipline students who are lazy and reward hard-working students? Do the critics have a proven method of educating our student population? I don't waste my time with critics who have no proven record of student achievement. I am too busy working with students who want to improve their lives with a great education. Once our students graduate from middle school, they are prepared with the academic skills to graduate from the best high schools and universities in the United States. This proves the AIM to Educate approach works.

EW: What kind of response did you get from the American Indian community to your approach to reforming the school?

Chavis: The American Indian community as a whole was very supportive of my efforts to create high academic achievement standards for our students at AIPCS. Many of them worked with my staff and I to ensure the students returned to a clean school. Tommy Seaton, his family, and others have worked very hard during the last decade to make sure students get a first-rate education at AIPCS. The Indian community was very supportive of me implementing the American Indian Model at our school.

EW: What or who were the biggest obstacles in your efforts to turn around your school?

Chavis: The biggest challenge was to create a school culture of discipline and hard work at AIPCS. Students and families had been conditioned to label excuses as part of their culture -- to miss school, come late, and be unprepared to work. The students had a very low school attendance rate. Students cannot be prepared with sound academic skills when they are not in school. How can students excel in mathematics, language arts, science, social studies, physical fitness, or the arts when someone blames their learning style, ethnic culture, school curriculum, or economic situation [for their shortcomings]? Once I overcame that nonsense, the students at AIPCS started to excel in academics, physical fitness, and the arts and were accepted to attend some of the best schools in the United States. I developed a clear mission statement to ensure the students would receive a sound education and discipline at AIPCS. Students were taught that they must work hard and accept responsibility for their actions.

EW: What are the keys to implementing your approach in other settings, such as rural and suburban schools? Or is the setting not important?

I developed a clear mission statement to ensure the students would receive a sound education and discipline at AIPCS. Students were taught that they must work hard and accept responsibility for their actions.

Chavis: The leadership, teachers, students, and families must be trained in how the American Indian Model works. Once the training is completed and AIM is implemented in their school, they will see amazing academic results for their students. The principal must make sure the team follows the model. In Oakland, California, there are five secondary schools that have implemented the AIM to Educate model. The California Department of Education uses the Academic Performance Index (API) scoring of 200 as the lowest and 1000 as the highest to rank schools.

[The top five performing schools in the city are AIM schools.] American Indian Public Charter School is ranked 977; American Indian Public Charter School I, 933; American Indian Public High School, 946; Oakland Charter Academy, 943; Oakland Charter High School, 955.

In addition, those schools are ranked as some of the best secondary schools in the United States as a result of their high academic scores. I assure you, students will excel in the American Indian Model in a rural or urban setting. This is something you can take to the bank.

EW: How did you get parents involved in the school and get them to buy in to your approach?

Chavis: At AIPCS, 98 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In short, some of the families are poor as church mice. We ask families to make sure their children attend school and support the decisions of our AIPCS staff. We guarantee every family whose child attends AIPCS that their child will be prepared to attend college. This philosophy has proven extremely successful with our students and families.

EW: How did the No Child Left Behind Act shape your approach to school reform?

Chavis: I love the No Child Left Behind Act. It makes public schools accountable for educating all students. The students at AIPCS take the California Standards Test (CST) each year at the end of April. The information from that test is utilized to make sure that we are addressing the core academic needs of each student. The CST has proven very accurate in the past in determining areas in which our students need additional academic support. We also send a copy of the students test results to their families. The students success at AIPCS confirms to the families that we are doing our job. In 2008-2009, every eighth grade student at AIPCS tested proficient or advanced in English-language arts and algebra.

This e-interview with Dr. Ben Chavis is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Native American Schools

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World


Published 11/09/2009