JOURNALING CHAOS 6: “Rains in Oakland”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 6 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.

Maybe it’s me.  Maybe I have “charter envy”.  

Maybe we just haven’t figured out all the things that The American Indian Charter School in Oakland has discovered to drive up their test scores.  With an API of 967, they are one of the very  highest performing public schools in California. Moreover, 88% of their students qualify for free an reduced lunch, so they have somehow managed to overcome poverty.

grailjpegIn fact I wondered if they had found the Holy Grail. I wondered if maybe my ideas about insuring that kids mastered the standards before they moved to the next grade level… might be a little draconian;  maybe even unnecessary.

A donor from the Koret Foundation in the Bay Area was adamant in her praise for The American Indian Charter School:

“They really should be the model for public education in the state of California,” she said.

And she also said: “What I will never understand is why the world is not beating a path to their door to benchmark them, learn from them and replicate what they are doing.”

So short of “beating a path to their door” I decided to at least read the recent LA Times article wherein these quotes were found, along with a general description of just what is happening to engender such astounding results at The American Indian Charter School. The reporter, Mitchell Landsberg, was clearly impressed and even amused by the leadership there. But perhaps surprisingly, he seemed a little conflicted on whether what was happening at The American Indian Charter School– not withstanding an API of 967– was actually good for kids. 

la times

But we steal good ideas so I read on:

I read that the school administrators take “great pride in frequently firing teachers”.  Ok.  But we don’t do that at El Milagro. We choose to not give up on  people whether they are students or adults.  So I’ll leave that plan to Oakland and keep reading.

I read that they hand-pick their students and that as one administrator (and parent of a student in the school) confirmed: “They have kids who could go anywhere in the state and succeed.”  Well that’s good for them.  We have kids like that at El Milagro too.  Except they didn’t start off that way.  We didn’t get to cherry pick them. We worked hard and the kids worked hard and their parents worked hard to achieve a level of proficiency. We don’t choose our students… they choose us!

one roomjpegI read that they have, by design, no lab equipment, no computers, no televisions, no games at PE.  They mock multicultural curricula (“the demagoguery of tolerance”)  and reject efforts to build children’s self esteem.  It shows. The director refers to students of color as “darkies”!

Anyway, the tools of instruction at The American Indian Charter School are textbooks and worksheets. It is teacher talk and drill and kill. Hmmmm. Disappointing.

Then I read how discipline is so strictly enforced.  After school and Saturdays.  They are not above calling kids out, humiliating them, punishing them, forcing them to wear embarrassing signs.  One student had his head shaved in front of the school for stealing!  “Classes are preternaturally quiet and focused” writes Landsberg. “They have been told to keep their attention on their work.  They do as they are told.”

Now I am aghast.  So I checked on the website and it is indeed a school in California and the year is indeed 2009 and The American Indian Charter School is indeed a school lauded by the likes of George Will as a model that could close the achievement gap in America.  And admittedly, they do have that amazing API.

Then I read that attendance is mandatory (as it is at El Milagro, too. To an extent.)  When an African American student took a day off from the rigors of The American Indian Charter School to watch the historic inauguration of President Obama with his family, he was punished with extra work and the principal’s recommendation to a private high school he wanted to attend was rescinded.  His mom was justifiably outraged and removed him from the school.  The principal defended her actions:  watching the inauguration, she argued, “is not part of our curriculum.” Now I am outraged too.

So what is the curriculum?  This reads like a horror story.  Where is the magic that explains 967?

I read that the curriculum is, in essence, the California Standards Test.  The American Indian Charter  School” relentlessly and unapologetically teaches to the test.”  They teach almost nothing that does not directly affect standardized test scores.  

And so, taking all of these strategies together, the best practices of the American Indian Charter School– teach to the test, military style discipline, drill and kill, no computers, humiliate the kids–  their students score well on the CST and it all adds up to an API that we should all aspire to and “replicate.” Is that the story?

Well no thank you. If George Will wants to hold out models of schools for others to replicate he can.  But there is nothing about this story or this school that reflects the kind of excellence I would seek for my own children. Good enough for the “darkies” though, hey Mr. Will?


So now I have lots of questions:

Where is the commitment to children, the passion, the love of teaching and learning?  Where is there room for creativity and innovation. Where is the intellectual integrity? How do children become technologically literate in places like this? How do they learn to write and solve problems?

And is this really the price we have to pay to bleed high API numbers out of communities that are already struggling?  Is the California Standards Test a legitimate measure of school success if somebody can produce these results using such outdated and oppressive instructional approaches?

I like the Bay Area and I like Oakland.   I like the rain there.  And I am sure I would like the kids and the teachers of the American Indian Charter School. But you cannot rise to the heights our children deserve by riding on the wings of Icarus.  This is not the Holy Grail.  So if you don’t mind, we will keep looking.



Filed under California charter schools, charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, teaching

11 responses to “JOURNALING CHAOS 6: “Rains in Oakland”

  1. There’s yet another angle on the “success” of that school.

    • Thanks for the link to this Doug. This article had more specific data about the cherry-picking and messing with the school’s demographics so I created a link to it in my blog. I usually would not be concerned about what is happening in another school– especially a charter– if it wasn’t for how they are held out as being exemplary. We have a few local schools that had huge gains and we are constantly reminded about their “success”.

  2. Gracie

    Wow!!…I wonder if these kids interact with each other!!!

  3. Thank you for helping to get the full truth out about this school by linking to my site.

    Mitchell Landsberg’s article came out after I made that post. I sent him the drastic demographic change evidence to which he replied that he knew about it, but didn’t address it, because he, “… didn’t have more space…” and didn’t think it was important enough.

    Including the info would only have taken a paragraph; so, in my view he intentionally perpetuated that Holy Grail myth. A few years ago, Schwarzenegger called the school a “miracle.”

    FYI, here’s another little, lovely story about Chavis

    • No…thank YOU. Your blog was very interesting.. I thought it was just me. I am the executive director of a charter school that is constantly compared to schools like this one… with its high test results/low levels of teaching and learning. We refuse to sell out to this notion… as you can tell from my weblog!

  4. Such an interesting comparison of the two school models. Good point with the parent pulling their student out of the charter school when the principal reprimanded the child for staying out of school to watch the presidential inaugeration (and the principal then withdrew the support of the school to recommend the child at the next planned step in their education) – parents do have the right and responsibility to guide their children’s education. The school has the responsibility to foster human growth, which means the child expands their mind. By utilizing the mind control model of education, the principal failed at a very basic level to facilitate the child’s learning. We should not teach children to blindly conform and obey, that puts them in danger of blindly following crazy people – examples – Jim Jones, Moonies, Hitler, etc.

    • Also important to note is that the student was African American. This occasion, the inauguration of President Obama, obviously had a great deal of special meaning to that child’s parent, and very understandably so.

      Asian immigrant parents, who comprise the majority of the parent body at this school, would not attach the same level of emotion to that event.

      I wonder how Asian student attendance holds up at AIPCS on Chinese New Year. This is the most important holiday celebrated by Asian families here in Oakland, for which parents sometimes permit their children to skip part, or all of school.

  5. Pingback: DANCING FOR FUNHOUSE MIRRORS « “El Milagro Weblog”

  6. Pingback: CHEATING OUR KIDS « “El Milagro Weblog”

  7. just another way our childern are cheated so others can make a dollar . thank for your post

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