A Charter School's Unconventional Success Five years ago, the American Indian Charter High School in Oakland, Calif. was about to be closed down because of poor attendance and rock-bottom academic scores. But then Ben Chavis became principal, and now the school has the highest academic scores in the city and a nearly 100 percent attendance rate.
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A Charter School's Unconventional Success

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A Charter School's Unconventional Success

A Charter School's Unconventional Success

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, an actress thinks she's discovered a fountain of youth. Here's a hint: it comes with headphones.

BRAND: First though, it's the first day of classes at a new high school in Oakland, California. That city is known for its troubled school system. The new school is being started by the successful and unusual principal of a middle school, the American Indian Public Charter School. In five years, that school went from being one of the worst schools in Oakland to one of the best.

Emily Wilson from member station KLEW reports on a remarkable turnaround

EMILY WILSON reporting:

The 10-year-old middle school occupies a converted church building off Oakland's busy MacArthur Boulevard. Principal Ben Chavis is a Native American with light green eyes and crew cut gray hair. He sports a tracksuit as he goes on about one of this favorite subjects: how liberal thinkers hurt poor minority students.

Mr. BEN CHAVIS (Principal, American Indian Charter School): They have no standards for minorities. They're like, you know, let's let them get freedom. Let's understand their learning style. Let's give them multiculturalism. And no discipline, no structure, no game plan. So they're destroying us. They've destroyed a whole generation. They've wiped out many more people than the Klan has.

WILSON: Before Chavis took over the middle school five year ago, the emphasis here was on Indian culture. Students learned drum beating and got smoking breaks. Attendance dropped from about 100 to only a few dozen students.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

WILSON: Now the emphasis is on academics with an hour and a half of language arts and math every day. If you want to study music or art, you have to do it after school. The hallway is plastered with student work and charts and posters showing, among other things, the 99.7 percent attendance rate, about twice the rate in similar schools in Oakland.

Another chart chronicles the ascent of the school's academic testing scores from the low 400s to last year's 880. Jerry Mishkin, the school's assistant principal, says this is proof Chavis' model works.

Mr. JERRY MISHKIN (Assistant Principal, American Indian Charter School): Our school was going to be closed down. They gave Dr. Chavis one year to turn it around, and you can see he improved 160 points. So the American Indian Public Charter School improved 160 points in one year. That's definitely the biggest jump I've ever heard of.

WILSON: As Chavis walks the halls of the school, he likes to check in with the students.

Mr. CHAVIS: How are you making the black population look here? You making them look good or bad?

Unidentified Man: Good.

Mr. CHAVIS: Good? What are you doing to make them look good?

Unidentified Man: Studying hard.

WILSON: Three-quarters of the students at the school live below the poverty line. Chavis says those are the best students to work with.

Mr. CHAVIS: They say well you can't expect minorities to learn because they're poor. Wait a minute. It's the opposite. If you're poor, if you come from nothing, it's easy to work with because you have nothing. You're easy to motivate when you have nothing.

WILSON: The principal believes in strong discipline, and doesn't hesitate to embarrass students who don't do their work or break rules. Students who are even a minute late get detention. Girls are not allowed any jewelry, make-up, or even colorful hair ornaments. The boys need to wear a belt to keep their pants up. That's something ninth-grader Johnny Gonzalez(ph) will never forget.

Mr. JOHNNY GONZALEZ (Student, American Indian Charter School): Me and my friend were sagging and he brought us to the office and he got - there was a heating lamp and he tied that around - and he tied this big old light cord around my other friend. So we had to drag around a light and a heating lamp.

WILSON: Assistant Principal Jerry Mishkin.

Mr. MISHKIN: He doesn't care about hurting kids' feelings. He wants kids to succeed, but he wants to be honest. And so if there's a Mexican child who's not doing their homework, what he'll say is: Do you know what people are going to call you when you get older? They're going to call you a lazy Mexican.

WILSON: Many of teachers at the school are in their 20s and fresh out of college. Not all of them agree with Chavis' practices. Eighth-grade teacher Nora Houseman(ph) is eating a burrito in the office on her lunch break. She says Chavis is effective, but she doesn't agree with everything he does.

Ms. NORA HOUSEMAN (Teacher, American Indian Charter School): He likes to play bad cop in opposition usually to the teachers. So I mean he does very firmly believe in, you know, ruling through fear and embarrassment, which definitely isn't something that I believe in or practice at all in my classroom.

WILSON: Still, a sign hanging at the end of the front hall says: There's never any genius without a stain of madness. This describes Principal Chavis perfectly, according to Johnny, who dragged around a heating lamp all day. He believes Chavis does what he does because he cares about his students.

Mr. GONZALEZ: I think it's a great school. And Dr. Chavis is a crazy principal, but his ways are - they're meaning to help.

WILSON: Johnny will be a freshman this year at Chavis' new American Indian Public High School.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Wilson in Oakland.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: There's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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