Meeting the People Where They Are: The Promises and Perils of Attempting an African Centered Institution in a Public School System.

AuthorShockley, Kmt G.
PositionReport

Introduction

African-centered schools orient students toward having an African worldview (Shujaa, 1991) and involves them in a process of cultural reattachment (Shockley, 2010). Many scholars have argued that African centered schooling is the only form of schooling that can address the academic failure and cultural needs of Black children (Shockley, 2010, Akoto, 1999). Scholars have noted that within African centered schools, the factors that often contribute to the academic failure of Black children are eliminated. Those factors include high rates of suspension and dropout, lower scores on standardized tests and the problem of overrepresentation of Black children receiving special education services.

Given the glaring issues that traditional public schools are having with the aforementioned factors, it is no wonder why communities across America are demanding alternative educational models such as African-centered schools. While the Council of Independent Black Institutions (CIBI) asserts that in order for a school to be African centered it must be independent, educators and communities throughout the country are attempting to adopt the African centered model into the public domain. For example, in states such as Missouri, New York, Florida, Oklahoma and the District of Colombia, charter and public African-centered school have been attempted.

The increase in the number of African centered schools has created the need for more research. Currently, numerous researchers (Shockley, 2015; Lomotey, 1992; Shujja, 1991) have written articles on African centered education; however, there is a lack of available research on charter and public schools attempting to implement a version of African centered schooling. To address this gap, we conducted a qualitative research study at a public school that was allowed by the superintendent and board to become an African centered school. The research site is a school named African centered Public School (ACPS). At ACPS we (the researchers) explore the school using this research question: "what are the experiences of an African-centered principal and teacher with transforming a school from a regular public school to an African centered institution?"

Purpose and Overview

The purpose of this study was to understand the experiences of an African centered principal and teacher with transforming a school from a regular public school to an African centered public school. We focused on the principal and the teacher because they self-identify as being African centered, and they are leading the school in their work with non-Afrocentric educators. The principal and the teacher have pseudonyms "Principal Obenga" and "Baba Baye". They understand the conceptual and theoretical tenets of African-centered education and serve as the vital supports for other educators, many of whom are having their first experience in an African-centered environment.

The research question emerged in part from literature indicating the need for additional research on African-centered educators (Hilliard, 1998; Shockley, 2010). While there is literature on the important pedagogical practices that are necessary for reaching Black children (Asante, 2017), there is a lack of literature that focuses on public schools that use an African centered model. According to CIBI, African-centered schools by definition must be independent, and the newly conceived ideas that African centered schools can be charter or public has come under intense scrutiny by stalwarts. Thus, by exploring the experiences of an African centered principal and teacher who are transforming a school from a regular public school to an African-centered public school we will provide insight into experiences of these leaders as they attempt to graft an institution that can work for children. The study was conducted in the State of Missouri at ACPS. ACPS is a public urban institution that is located in a metropolitan area. Currently 500 students are enrolled in the school and nearly 100% are Black; 85% of the teaching force at ACPS is Black.

Background

Missouri is a state known for its history of racially fueled court decisions. Decisions such as the Missouri Compromise allowed the state to enter the union as a chattel slavery state. More recently, a large Missouri school district operated under a court-supervised desegregation order. After seventeen years, local control was restored (Smith, 2009). However, during the aforementioned school desegregation plan and afterwards, Black students continued to fail at alarming rates (Smith, 2009). According to Trent,

[A]fter controlling for student background, prior test scores made little difference. One might infer from this that the effect of race on student test scores is fairly constant. The addition of school poverty level, by contrast, eliminates more of the racial disparity. After controlling for all the independent variables, the race effect remained substantially meaningful, suggesting that the treatment of African American students in school is sufficiently different to cause their lower scores on achievement tests in both reading and mathematics. (p. 324) Trent's (1997) assertion is in contrast to the work of poverty scholars (Lewis, 1971; Payne, 1996) and highlights that race overwhelmingly influenced student achievement in this large Missouri School District. Such districtwide failures are not an aberration and have prompted social justice and transformative education scholars (Shields, 2011) alike to continually demand that districts critically analyze their cultural and academic processes, and investigate how race hinders or facilities the academic success of children. It is important to note that in 2015 the ACPS' school district was fully reaccredited for the first time in more than twenty years.

However, during that same year the academic performance of Black children on the state's annual MAP test were abysmal. For example, more than 70% of students in grades 3-8 scored basic or below basic on their grade level mathematics exam and more than 60% scored at the same level in science (Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools, 2017). Thus, more than thirty years after court mandated desegregation, Black students are still scoring in the bottom tier in this district.

African Centered Theory and Literature

African centered education is a complex endeavor that involves reorienting one's approach to data so that the concerns and interests of people of African descent become 'center stage.' For some people, intentionally reorienting thinking is a very unnatural process because it often requires an intentional re-thinking of data. To African centered thinkers, it seems that most people might prefer to think of themselves as being unencumbered by culturo-political ideology. African centered thinkers have been somewhat successful at popularizing the notion that neither 'a-political' nor 'a-cultural' actually exist (Akoto and Akoto, 1999; Hilliard, 2003). That is, they believe that all people are impacted by culture, and the dominant European American culture becomes default thinking in almost all cases. One of the central problems of African centered thinkers relates to their belief that European American culture does not work for children (or people) of African descent. That belief comes from their analyses of the conditions under which Black people now find themselves within all areas of human endeavor in the US (economics, education, entertainment, labor, law, politics, etc.). In all of the aforementioned areas of human endeavor, Blacks are suffering more than any other group, and African centered thinkers believe that the solution to such suffering is not in addressing each issue as separate baffling phenomena, but instead by changing the cultural practice to match the cosmology and/or worldviews of the people. Hence, they believe that European American culture is a mismatch with the natural foundational ontology of African descendants.

Since African centered theorists believe that the mismatch is harmful to African (American) people, their strongest desire is to make sure that future generations of African children do not have to suffer through schooling processes that do not meet the needs of people of African descent. African centered education was conceptualized to match African people's cultural needs and interests with what needs to happen in order to educate those same people. In their quests to provide meaningful and relevant educational opportunities for children of African descent, a number of private African centered schools were first instituted in the 1960's. While most African centered schools are private, a number of charter schools began opening in the late 1990's, and there have been a few instances of public schools attempting to create African centered institutions such as ACPS (Shockley, Burbanks and McPherson, 2015).

The same organizing principles and theoretical basis for private African centered schools was used to support the creation of ACPS. The main goal of all of these efforts is nationbuilding, which is:

The conscious and focused application of African people's collective resources, energies, and knowledge to the task of liberating and developing the psychic and physical space that we identify as ours. It involves the development of behaviors, values, language, institutions, and physical structures that elucidate our history and culture, concretize and protect the present, and insure the future identity and independence of the nation. Nationbuilding is the deliberate, keenly directed, focused, and energetic projection of the national culture, and the collective identity (Akoto, 1992, p. 3). African centered education scholars and practitioners advance several concepts that constitute the cultural imperatives of African centered ideas in education. The cultural imperatives are the ''main ingredients'' of these ideas in education. In other...

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