Sankofa healing and restoration: a case study of African American excellence and achievement in an urban school.

Author:Watson, Marcia J.


African American student achievement is generally falsely propagated in educational research (King, 2005; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003). Most research on African American education focuses on the "achievement gap," which erringly compares Black and White students' test scores, without accounting for school inequalities and structural barriers to achievement. Additionally, the "achievement gap" narrative purports that minority students should aspire to perform like their White counterparts, who unwittingly are also underachieving. "Achievement gap" studies falsely suggest that there are measurable differences between Black and White student intelligence. The history of this pseudo-research dates back to nineteenth century propaganda, which was submersed in racism (Ferber, 1998; Gutherie, 1998; Hartigan, 2010; Sanders, 1969; Wiggan, 2007). Results from these studies are irreversibly damaging and spurious. Instead, the "achievement gap" should be more properly titled "opportunity" or "resource" gap. There are undeniable structural differences in the treatment of students across schools (Kozol, 2005). Additionally, there are observable practices that work to reverse student underachievement, including having a certified teacher in the content area, reducing class sizes, developing multicultural curricula, and utilizing culturally responsive pedagogy (Bloom & Owens, 2013; Chenoweth, 2007, 2009). This present research debunks preconceived beliefs about the "achievement gap" and high performing schools (Bloom & Owens, 2013; Chenoweth, 2007, 2009).

The erroneous claims regarding the "achievement gap" ignore the fact that all racial groups in the United States are underperforming (NCES, 2013a, 2013b; PISA, 2012). Results from both national and international assessments support this finding. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is a national research organization sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, confirms that no racial group is at or above 60% proficiency in mathematics or reading (NCES, 2013 a, 2013b). Additionally, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is an international comparative test, reports that all U.S. students fair below other industrialized Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations in critical subjects like mathematics and science (PISA, 2012). These startling statistics have led educational researchers and policymakers to create reform initiatives in U.S. schools. Yet, in recent years, educational reform has become synonymous with testing and assessment. Recent assessment efforts, such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core State Standards, focus on testing African American students without preemptively redressing systemic inequalities in schools. Some of the disparities include racial bias in discipline policies, unqualified teachers, disproportionate funding, and inequalities in course offerings (Delpit, 2006; King, 2005; Kozol, 2005; Kunjufu, 2002; Mickelson, 2001; Milner & Hoy, 2003). Another glaring disparity is the lack of non-hegemonic perspectives provided in school curricula.

As a result, most students seldom learn any Black history beyond slavery and the Civil Rights Movement in schools. With few opportunities to learn about African and African American contributions, the curriculum lacks relevancy for Black students in particular. More importantly, the strategic removal of African contributions in school curricula reifies cultural hegemony. It is important to acknowledge these educational conditions in order to better comprehend African American student achievement with greater accuracy.

Despite the educational disparities mentioned, there are several high-performing urban schools such as Centennial Place Elementary in Atlanta, Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School in St. Paul [Minnesota], M. Hall Stanton Elementary in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania], and Osmond A. Church School in The Bronx [New York], which operate as anomalies within their respective districts (Chenoweth, 2007, 2009). Additionally, in the Harlem Children's Zone in New York and Animo Leadership School in Boston, Massachusetts, more than 90% of these low-income minority students graduate high school and are admitted into a college or university. Each of these schools promotes academic excellence for all students (Ali & Jerald, 2001; Ancess, 2003; Bell, 2001; Chenoweth, 2007, 2009; Dantley, 2010; Elias & Haynes, 2008; Haberman, 2000; Reeves, 2003). In terms of high performing schools that primarily serve African American students, there is developing research on Afrocentric education (Hopkins, 1997; King, Swartz, Campbell, Lemons-Smith & Lopez, 2014; Murrell, 2002; Webb, 1996). High performing Afrocentric schools encourage the use of effective teaching practices and non-hegemonic course materials. It is important to better understand these school practices and investigate the ways in which the curriculum improves student achievement. To accomplish this task, this paper uses a qualitative case study method to explore perceptions and experiences of teachers and students at a high-performing Afrocentric school in the Southeast. Additionally, this paper examines the utility of non-hegemonic curricula for African American students.

The Mis-education of 21st Century Students

As mentioned, one of the most critical areas of educational reform is the curriculum, which remains fundamentally unchanged in U.S. schools (Dei, 1994, 1996, 2012). In public schools, textbooks and pedagogical practices have reinforced the same White, European narrative for centuries. This undeniably reifies cultural hegemony and damages African American student ethos through curriculum violence (Ighodaro & Wiggan, 2011). Curriculum violence is a term which describes the emotional and psychological damages of hegemony as transmitted through the curriculum. Curricular hegemony is not a new phenomenon. Over eighty years ago, Carter G. Woodson identified the dangerous effects of ideological domination in his seminal work, Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). Eighty three years later, U.S. students still suffer from mis-education. Today's 21st century schools lack multiculturalism, diversity, and non-hegemonic perspectives in subjects like reading, language arts, social studies, history, and science (Akbar, 1998; Loewen, 1995). African American students in particular, often only learn about their culture through lessons on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

This ignores critical information regarding African contributions to the world and produces curriculum violence (Akbar, 1998; Asante, 1990; Clarke, 1977; Ighodaro & Wiggan, 2011; Karenga, 2002; Kunjufu, 2002; Obenga, 2004). As a result, the school curriculum is completely irrelevant for many African American students (Dei, 2012; Gay, 2000; King, 2005; King, Swartz, Campbell, Lemons-Smith & Lopez, 2014; Ladson-Billings, 1994). The systemic removal of African contributions from the curriculum is a strategy that pervasively pontificates hegemony and white supremacy ideology. This psychological and institutional attack and violence on Black children requires healing and restoration (Ighodaro & Wiggan, 2011). The concept of "Sankofa" for students is an Akan principle that means to "go back and fetch" (King, Swartz, Campbell, Lemons-Smith, & Lopez, 2014). In terms of education, Sankofa encourages restoration and healing. Sankofa is crucial in the process of reversing mis-education and cultural hegemony.

As noted, U.S. students who are not of European descent have little opportunity to learn from a curriculum that reflects their own cultural identity. It is important to expose students to this form of corrective history. History demonstrates that African American students have a lineage of excellence in education (Ani, 1994; Asante, 1990; Clarke, 1993; Jackson, 1970; Karenga, 2002; Williams, 1987). Africans were producers of science, mathematics, philosophy, religion, and literature long before the Western world came in contact with the Kemetian/Egyptian region (Asante, 1990; Clarke, 1977; Diop, 1974, 1981, 1987; Kunjufu, 2002; Obenga, 2004). Yet, in many U.S. schools, African American students have lost connection to this rich academic heritage. Thus, it is important for U.S. teachers to reignite the genius within every Black child (Wilson, 1992). One approach to awakening Black genius is to implement an Afrocentric/African-centered approach to education.

Formation of Afrocentric Schools

Afrocentric/African-centered schooling is based on the theoretical framework of Afrocentricity. For the purpose of this paper, Afrocentricity and African-centeredness are used interchangeably. Molefi Asante (1991) describes Afrocentricity as the re-centering of African perspectives at the core of analysis. Additionally, Afrocentricity removes African people from the margins of history and society and makes them participants, not objects, in the creation of their own narratives. Molefi Asante is most known for the contemporary definition of Afrocentricity. However, it is important to note that key Pan-African and Black Nationalist figures such as Marcus Garvey, Theophilus Albert Marryshow, W.E.B. DuBois, and Kwame Nkrumah, for example, helped to lay the foundation for today's Afrocentric work. Additionally, before these Pan-African and Black Nationalist scholars emerged, Martin Delany, Alexander Crummell, and Robert Campbell were also important in the formation of African centered thought.

Pan Africanism and Black Nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided the foundation for Afrocentricity, a term which was coined years later. In the 1960s and 70s, Afrocentric schools were formed to provide alternative education (Pollard & Ajirotutu, 2000). One of the first examples, the Nairobi Day School, opened its doors in 1966 in East Palo Alto, California as a supplementary Saturday school. Its...

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