Kansas City-based New York Times reporter John Eligon, most noted at NewsBusters for calling Kansas Republicans “conservative” or "right-wing" every other word, sympathetically covered the proposed shuttering of an Afrocentric school in Chicago, in a story that made the lead slot of the National section of Monday’s Times: “Poor Scores Leave Afrocentric Schools Vulnerable -- Chicago Academy, Lauded for Instilling Pride and Confidence, Faces Closing.”
The text box was condescending to the students: “Supporters argue success is measured by more than scores.” Eligon mostly skipped over apparent electives like numeracy and literacy, and forwarded special pleading for the Afro-centric curriculum instead. The Times is notorious for giving radical and (certain) religious schools the benefit of the doubt.
Test scores suggest that the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, an African-centered school, is struggling mightily. Its students in third through eighth grades scored in only the 14th percentile in reading on national achievement tests last year and in the eighth percentile in math.
Those statistics have prompted the Chicago Public Schools to recommend closing Sizemore. But here in a South Side neighborhood riddled with crime, blight and poverty, where the black experience can seem like a constant struggle, Sizemore’s many supporters argue that their students’ success is measured by much more than test scores. The school has done exceedingly well, they say, instilling confidence in a psychologically battered population.
Self-esteem is fine, but reading and writing is better – and is the actual job of a school.
“When you talk about children who are suffering from all the ills of, you know, the residual effects of slavery,” said Danielle Robinson, who is in her third year as Sizemore’s principal, “absolutely this is where they need to be.”
Like dozens of African-centered schools across the country, Sizemore embodies much of what racial justice activists are screaming from rooftops. Suspension is a last resort. Teachers address students by courtesy titles and their last names. The accomplishments of blacks are front and center in lesson plans.
Yet many African-centered schools have found themselves on the chopping block because of subpar testing, the proliferation of large charter networks with more resources and political clout, and lingering angst over Black Power principles.
Whereas supporters of African-themed education see their work as self-empowerment, some others -- a number of them in the moneyed, mostly white elite -- see something much scarier.
Sizemore, like other city schools in its position, attributes its low test scores partly to the challenging population it serves: 97 percent of its students are from low-income households. But the school argues that the Afrocentric model provides a layer of social nurturing that prepares even poor testers for success.
Angry activism seemed to be triumphing over education.
Anger over the decision poured out during an appeal hearing last week in Sizemore’s aging auditorium, where school supporters pleaded for more than two hours with two of the nine charter commissioners who will vote on its fate. The protest spirit also loomed large.
Dave Flynn, turning his attention from the commissioners to the crowd of hundreds, suggested holding a sit-in.
“We cannot depend on this board -- we cannot depend on this city,” he said to rousing applause. “We know what the city’s about and the harm that it’s done to our communities and to black education in general. So in order for us to save Sizemore, we have to invest in our own power, which is black power.”
It is that spirit that undergirds life at Sizemore, where students begin each day to the beat of traditional African drumming. They raise their right fists to salute both the American and the red, black and green Pan-African flags.
The theory is that in a world where negative images of blacks breed hopelessness, a curriculum centered on the strength, beauty and accomplishments of the African diaspora lifts disadvantaged black children. And that prepares them for success better than a traditional Eurocentric education, which advocates say reduces blacks in history to little more than slaves and the token civil rights hero.
The Times' blandishments also apply to certain religious schools. Debbie Almontaser was forced to resign her position as principal of the Brooklyn public school she founded, Khalil Gibran International Academy, in 2008, forced out for defending the use of the word "intifada" on student T-shirts. Under the headline "Her Dream, Branded as a Threat,” reporter Andrea Elliott painted those opposed to the Muslim academy in fearsome and unflattering terms, and the Times blamed its rivals the New York Post for making a fuss about it (i.e., committing journalism).
In 2006 the paper ran a puff piece by Michael Luo on a Muslim Center in Queens, with a suitably jaunty headline, “Memorizing the Way to Heaven, Verse by Verse,” teaching young Muslims the Koran -- and nothing else -- for up to three years, while lamely noting as an aside that "the school may be inadvertently running afoul of state law." Luo quickly waved the concern away: “Several parents said they were not worried about their children falling behind because they are smart enough to make up the academic work. Some students from the class have, in fact, gone on to the city’s best high schools, parents and school officials said.” Some real deep investigative reporting there.
But the Times wasn’t nearly as sympathetic to a Hebrew school in a 2007 report by Abby Goodnough, “Hebrew Charter School Spurs Dispute in Florida.”