It was over 15 years ago, when elders in the Native Community asked me help with the American Indian Public Charter School. A school, then in revocation, and now rated among the best schools in the City, state, and country. But at that time, nepotism reined, the school was in debt, had no employees, only 1 board member, who lived in NYC, I think 15 enrolled students, and terrible academics. These elders were asking that OUSD close their school if it didn’t change. I was young, naïve, and stupid enough to offer to help.
Weeks later, I was the board president of a school that was in revocation, was failing by all accounts on all measures, but was drastically needed by Oakland’s Native community. Many people don’t know it but Oakland was one of several federal relocation centers, where Native Americans were encouraged to move off of reservations to, so there is a surprisingly large and diverse Native population here.
Crazy like a fox or crazy
In any event, the Board/I hired Dr. Ben Chavis, who had already been identified as a candidate—well the candidate, since it was summer and nobody else was applying.
Ben is pretty famous or infamous depending on your view point. But nobody wanted this job, and we needed someone who was crazy to turn things around. Whether he was “Crazy as a Fox” as his book was titled or otherwise crazy is a chapter yet to be written. He now sits accused of a variety of offenses, and was forced out of leadership of the school, now a group of schools called American Indian Model Schools (AIMS).
When the school year started we had 23 students, taking all comers, including students that were expelled from OUSD schools. I still see some of our students.
We bargained our way out of debt, and while it was rocky, and crazy, there was something really special about that year. We had to come together to make it work. A teacher gave birth, and would regularly bring her baby, the kids would hold it at times during class, the baby became a unit on measurement, and a part of the community. The Native community provided tons of services and we really built a strange but strangely functional community.
Ben was “unconventional” I remember one of the first days of school, a parent called me and said Ben cursed at them. Shocked, I called Ben, he blurted out, “yeah I cursed at them, that mother……..”
Me, “Ben you can’t just curse at parents.”
“Dirk and Effing law” Ben would mutter to staff members after our calls or meetings.
It was one of many such exchanges, another that I didn’t witness, but heard the legend of. An older adult brother of a student went to get the student out of class during school, he didn’t have the paperwork to get the kid, and roughly pushed past a staff member to go into the classroom. Ben challenges the young man physically, they step outside, Ben takes his belt off and wraps it around his fist, and wins a one punch fight with the young man on the school steps.
I know this sounds terrible, but in a way I think the kids saw it more as he is fighting for us. He is protecting us.
Ben grew up poor, on the reservation, and he carried this with him. He would fight anyone—dudes on the street, the union guy, local reporters, federal education officials—I am serious. No I really am serious.
He recalled a story of a teacher who offered him a buck or something to regularly come to school. Which he did, and he did the same thing for our kids, perfect attendance for the year, you got $100 cash, miss one day I think it was $50. I know there are a lot of studies on paying for grades and how it doesn’t work. I think this did. It kind of tricked kids initially to coming back to school, but then they found community and wanted to stay. And we went from 85% attendance to over 99% in one year.
And it was big deal to kids, he would come to an assembly with a big wad of bills and peel it off for students, younger siblings watching with their mouths open.
Authorizer oversight was pretty absent. District staff showed up at the school once, and Ben shredded them, “what the F… do you know about our kids? Who are you to judge us? Get the Eff out of here.” And they did, not sure if they ever returned, certainly not for years. And because the school was successful, I don’t think they wanted to have that fight.
The school became a darling of philanthropy, and an exemplar of the kind of tough love stories that the media eats up.
Success and a changing student body
American Indian was growing into one of the top performing schools in Oakland, but it was changing. When I would go to the Pow Wow at Oakland Tech, or see Native folks in the community they would increasingly complain about the school and say there were no Indian kids there. And increasingly they were right.
The school was attracting and recruiting a different demographic. We used to joke that we know we made it when the White kids came, well the Asian kids did, and I think they now make up the largest racial group. Academically, American Indian was a very strong school, winning the National Blue Ribbon alongside a host of other accolades. But it wasn’t serving the same kids.
I continued to lead the Board, but my relationship with Ben continued to fray, and at a certain point, it had to be him or me. And it was him, I moved to Doha.
I look back to American Indian, and through it all wonder whether it was worth it. All the late meetings, the weekends talking to parents trying to be the good cop to Ben’s sometimes bad cop routine. And all the challenges I got in the community and still get.
Would Oakland be better off without AIMS? I don’t think so. Even during those turbulent years with Ben, I still think that many kids got something they otherwise wouldn’t have. And when I see our kids (well they are adults and college graduates) now, and talk about it, they knew Ben was crazy, and were smart enough to take some of his shtick with a grain of salt.
There were costs—real and substantial ones—no doubt. And I can’t speak to the current allegations. But I knew the odds of those early kids, and while we did have real losses that still haunt me, I do think we are better off.
Our Schools and Our Struggles
And even with changing demographics at the school, it is still serving low income students, and by the academic results, serving them very well. It is a different school, that maybe should have different name. But through all this struggle and drama the Flatlands have some very high quality schools, and it will be up the current board, staff and community to keep and evolve them.
That is the promise of charters to me, the chance to do our own schools, struggle through our own evolution, and succeed or fail on our own merits.
Nobody said it was easy, but if we work for it, it is ours.