Former Educator Embraces 'Crazy' Teaching Style

Ben Chavis is a retired principal of American Indian Public Charter School, a successful inner-city school in Oakland. Chavis, who is Native-American, has an unconventional teaching philosophy, drawing scrutiny for having referred to members of his largely-minority student body with terms some would consider disparaging — such as "darkies" and "half breeds." In a newly-published memoir Crazy Like A Fox: One Principal's Triumph in the Inner City (with Carey Blakely), Chavis spells out his ideas for getting kids to learn.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we'll hear from an 11-year-old who scored an interview with the president of the United States.

But first, we're joined by Ben Chavis, retired public school principal. From September 2000 to July 2007, Chavis was head of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, California. During his time there, test scores sky rocketed. His mostly poor and heavily minority student body thrived. Along the way, though, he stepped on more than a few toes.

Ben Chavis is now the author of the new memoir, "Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal's Triumph in the Inner City." He joins us from Berkeley, California. And just a warning, there might be language that could offend some listeners. Ben Chavis, thanks for being here.

Dr. BEN CHAVIS (Former Principal, American Indian Public Charter School): And thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Let me start with your first day at school there at the American Indian Public Charter School. You addressed the student body in the cafeteria. You recount this in your book and I'm going to quote a bit from that speech here. You said, "We need to get things straight. I'm the head coach and run this school. You, half breeds, you think you can beat my ass, come line up on the left side of the gym, we need to settle this now." Pretty confrontational approach there, why?

Dr. CHAVIS: We were in more of an alternative school and the kids said we run this school. When I arrived, they said, we run this school. And I wanted to make sure they knew who run the school. Students said, I whipped the last principal's ass, so I'm looking at him like, you know, not going to happen with me.

LUDDEN: But I mean, half breeds? And you also used the term darkies.

Dr. CHAVIS: They are like my own children. My kids are half breeds. Most of Americans like President Obama are half breeds. And they were all darkies, they were all dark. I assure you. They weren't whities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: And they didn't take offense?

Dr. CHAVIS: Took offense? You read the book, what happened? They broke out laughing…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. CHAVIS: …and no one stepped to the left side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Tell me more about this - the student body at this American Indian Public Charter School.

Dr. CHAVIS: You know, these were kids who had been kicked out of the traditional public school. They hadn't been provided any structure. They hadn't been taught how to read, how to write, how to do math. They had been allowed to do whatever they wanted to do.

LUDDEN: But the student body was not completely American-Indians? What was the make up?

Dr. CHAVIS: The year before I came, there were about seven Indian kids in the school. And after I came, we had more because I went out to an Indian community. I knew people and recruited more. But that, you know, it's - we had Mexicans, we had blacks. We didn't have any Chinese or any white at those times because they wouldn't come to the school.

You know, one of the new things about the school I'm very proud of the fact that we have the highest test scores in the area, one of the top three schools in the state out of 9,800 and some schools, but also that we have a diverse population.

LUDDEN: Well, those test scores were a dramatic improvement. When you took over, the school was about to be shut down because the scores were so low. Can you tell me more about some of the things you did to shake things up? You talk a lot in the book about essentially the value of public humiliation.

Dr. CHAVIS: You know, I discussed things that most people in America will not discuss. Let's talk about public humiliation. I addressed a real issue in America. The real issue is the poor ghetto kids are not being prepared to get into the top or any universities for that matter. Let's just be frank about this. But what I did is I prepared them for the real world with academics. And I used their race to motivate them.

LUDDEN: Like how?

Dr. CHAVIS: I used their poverty to motivate them. I tell them, I said, let's look at - I educated them, let's look at test scores from the white schools. Let's look at Piedmont, that was, Piedmont was - at that time, the best school in the Bay Area. So, what I did is I get the test scores from Piedmont and I said, here you - here's Piedmont. Look at all these white. They don't have one child in Piedmont who qualifies for free reduced lunch, 98 percent of our kids, 97 to 98 percent of our kids qualified for free reduced lunch, 100 percent of our kids were minorities.

I said these white people are kicking your butt in academics. What are you going to do? Are you guys stupid or what? I said, you're not stupid. You haven't been educated. I'm going to prepare you to outperform those rich white kids in Piedmont.

LUDDEN: But you also went beyond the academics at the classroom and into, you know, jewelry. You banned jewelry, make-up and you had a strategy for getting kids to stop wearing baggy pants. Can you tell me what happened if someone showed up with, you know, pants hanging low?

Dr. CHAVIS: Well, what I would do is take a mason twine, this yellow or pink mason twine. First, I tie it around their baggy pants, hold them up. Then the kids just pull it down. So then, I made them one of those, you know, I grew up in the south back in the '50s and the '60s. You had - we had what we call overhauls and a strap came over your shoulder. And then I just pull them over their shoulder. But before I got that advanced, some kids would just break my rules and I would tie a lamp to them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. CHAVIS: I'd wrap a lamp around their waist and let them carry the lamp around all day. That was Johnny Gonzales(ph), I did that to. You know, Johnny graduated from a prep school. He got a scholarship. I guess I should have tied a lamp. More kids in America should have lamps tied around them if you're going to get a scholarship to a prep school.

LUDDEN: So tell me why that works?

Dr. CHAVIS: Well, first of all, he couldn't hide. He had to hold that lamp the whole day as he walked around the school. And it embarrassed him. And even as Johnny said, he didn't want to hold that lamp anymore. I had another one, I put an electric heater. I tied it - used the electric cord and tied the heater around and he had to carry the heater all day. Each one of them said they didn't want to do that anymore.

LUDDEN: And how did the school board in Oakland respond to you?

Dr. CHAVIS: They tried to fire me at times. But then the parents of these kids had a big protest, and recalled some of the school boards who were trying to fire me.

LUDDEN: Really?

Dr. CHAVIS: Yeah.

LUDDEN: But now, you did know - it wasn't all sweet - sweetness and roses with the parents either. I mean, you would occasionally get criticized by parents and you tell in the book how - that people would write letters of complaint and you said, I enjoy scribbling notes in the more inflammatory and nonsensical ones. I've often written on their letters, are you a fool and idiot or a drug addict?

Dr. CHAVIS: Yes, usually they are two of those things: the fool…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. CHAVIS: …and you can choose the other. But, yeah, I did that. We have some crazy parents. I do what most principals in America don't have the guts to do. I don't take the crap from these crazy parents. You know what - well, the problem with most people in America, they think when they are talking about -the university professors who say we need more parent involvement, they think most parents are like them with a college degree.

Most parents in Oakland or in L.A. or Washington, D.C. don't have a college degree. Most parents have issues like professors have issues. And what I did is - my job is not educating parents, it's to educate the kids. So I tried to keep the parents away from me. I didn't waste my time with them when they, you know, talk about firing me.

But the point is the majority. We live in a country where if you get the majority, you're okay. The majority of the parents supported me. The majority of the parents supported what I was doing. The parents chose to come to us because they knew their child was going to be safe with me and I was going to educate them. The interesting thing is, I give you an example. Another thing I talk about in the book is retaining kids meaning they have to repeat the grade if they don't do their work. That's a no-no in America now. In the sixth grade, I retained 15 percent of our sixth graders. And what happened is in every case when I retain a child, they do better.

LUDDEN: You mentioned longer classes. You expanded some of the classes to an hour-and-a-half of English, an hour-and-a-half of math, what other educational reforms did you introduce?

Dr. CHAVIS: I did it. It doesn't cost any money. The public schools waste too much money. You don't need more money for public schools. As a matter of fact, I think most public schools have too much money.

LUDDEN: You also have something you call self-contained rooms. Tell me about them.

Dr. CHAVIS: We talk a lot in America about creating a community, but we're really into destroying communities. What I do, if you read the research from the universities, it said when kids hit puberty, they have identity problems, their body is changing. So what do we do when they hit middle school? We give them seven classes, seven different teachers.

What I do when they hit the middle school is I give them one teacher. And they have that teacher the whole year in the sixth grade. In the seventh grade, they move up with that teacher or that teacher moves up with them. In the eighth grade, the teacher moves up to the eight grade. When - it's a loop in process.

And at the end of three years, these kids have such a fantastic relationship with the teacher. They have a fantastic relationship with each other. They're black students, they're Chinese students, there are Mexican students, there's Indian students. They are a family, and that's what my goal is to create is a family.

LUDDEN: Is this - in some ways, do you see it as compensating for poor family life at home?

Mr. CHAVIS: You better believe that I do. It's a compensation for impersonal relationships in American society as a whole, not just at home. We like to blame parents. The parents are the victims. The school takes their money and then blames them.

I do not blame parents if my school is failing. It is my job. It is my responsibility. If any school in America is failing, blame the principal.

LUDDEN: Can I ask about your own background? It was pretty humble in the beginning. You were a Lumbee Indian from North Carolina. You talk about how your mother got pregnant when she was 16. Your father drank too much. You wrote about slicing just one piece of cornbread among several family members. How did that tough childhood shape your approach to education?

Mr. CHAVIS: One thing I always give my mother credit for, she was poor, and she was a maid, she worked in the fields. I worked in the fields as a child. I was a sharecropper, but she never let - she said you will not be a victim. She said what happens to you in life, you make choices. The wonderful thing about American society is you get to choose what you want to do, and if you get an education, you can go on and do great things.

That's what I learned from good coaches I had, but my mother was my role model because she wasn't a victim. And when I hear about how bad these kids have it, you know what? Poverty is the best motivator in the world. I love poverty.

The federal government has never beat poverty in any case. An individual must declare war on poverty. My momma declared war on poverty, and she won.

LUDDEN: It's been a couple years since you retired as principal. Some people had said oh, it's just the force of your character that really was making a difference, but the test scores have continued to go up since you left.

Mr. CHAVIS: These teachers, they took over, and they did a better job than I did. They don't have the same personality. They're not in these kids' face the way I was. They're very humble. But anyone can take this model, read it, study, spend one summer with us training in our model, and you can run a successful school.

I know the College of Education doesn't want to hear that, but I don't know anyone in American College of Education, I don't know one person throughout the United States who teaches in a college of education who's taken poor kids and used culture diversity and multiculturalism and bilingual ed. to turn around a school. I'd love to meet that person, but you can't find one. There's not one. That nonsense does not work. Common sense is what works.

These kids need more structure. Anyone can do what we've done if they're willing to work. That's it.

LUDDEN: Ben Chavis is the former principal of American Indian Public Charter School. He is the author, along with his former college, Carey Blakely, of "Crazy Like A Fox," which is now in bookstores. Mr. Chavis, thank you so much.

Mr. CHAVIS: Thank you, Jennifer.

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