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Local Independent Schools Offer Minorities 'Educational Option'

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Washington--In 1965, Liller Green and her husband William began looking for a preschool for her 2-year-old daughter in Philadelphia. They found few programs, and the one that looked most suitable had a waiting period of several years before the child could enroll.

Discouraged by the paucity of good programs, the Greens took matters into their own hands.

Beginning with 17 pupils, one teacher, and one aide, they opened the Ivy Leaf school. Their goal was to provide their pupils, all of whom were black, with a comprehensive education.

Today, 18 years later, the Philadelphia school has 770 pupils from preschool through grade 9 and a waiting list of 200. The school's operators have modernized their notion of a comprehensive education; pupils now begin working with computers in the 2nd grade.

The Ivy Leaf School is one of the several hundred independent neighborhood "alternative" schools with primarily minority enrollments now in operation in the United States. Their programs differ, as do their enrollments and budgets.

But according to the speakers at a conference on "neighborhood-based independent schools," convened here last week by the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, their goals are similar: To provide minority-group pupils with an educational op-tion that will improve their achievement and provide them with a solid understanding of their cultural heritage.

The center, founded in 1981 by Robert L. Woodson, previously a program director at the National Urban League and the American Enterprise Institute, fosters neighborhood enterprise in the educational, economic, and social realms as a means of solving the problems of low-income and minority populations.

Last week's conference--the first of its kind--was convened to provide those who operate such schools with an opportunity to share their experiences, to offer advice, and to help colleagues avoid potential pitfalls.

A national survey conducted by the center--which relied on word of mouth in the absence of any central source of information on the schools--identified more than 250 such schools nationally. Informed estimates, however, suggest that the number is much larger.

According to the survey: "These schools are meeting the academic and social needs of black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian-American children, primarily in urban neighborhoods."

"These schools are so diversified," noted Randolf Tobias, associate dean of the faculty at Queens College of the City University of New York, who attended the conference. "Some are religious-based, some are nationalistic, some are preppy. The common thread is, 'We believe we can do something better than the public schools. There are needs that our populations have that we can fill better than the public schools.'"

"This has been true throughout American history," said Mr. Tobias, who operated the Uhuru Saturday Day School in New York City between 1969 and 1971. "The Catholics took this position--that the public schools could not provide a good Catholic education. The Jews took that position."

"We have not established this forum to oppose public education," said Mr. Woodson, the center's founder and president. "Our concern is ... that children have a choice. We believe that having broader options in education is good not only for the children," but also for the entire educational system.

Cultural Pluralism

The speakers at the conference, virtually all of whom founded or now work in neighborhood independent schools with predominantly minority enrollments, repeated that theme. The data gathered in the research project, which was directed by Joan Davis Ratteray, a staff researcher at the center, suggest that the schools' focus is a combination of strong basic education and cultural pluralism.

Most of the schools, which the survey found in 35 states, consider themselves "independent, academic preparatory institutions," rather than "traditional" or "cultural" institutions. However, the theme of racial and cultural heritage was strong at the conference.

Most of the schools are supported by tuition; annual fees range from $800 to $2,000.

Most of the schools hold state accreditation or licensure.

Most of the schools were started in the mid-1970's, some in the mid-1960's. Some, however, go back as far as the early 1900's.

Most of the teachers at the schools have undergraduate degrees; many hold graduate degrees. Some, however, "specifically reject the notion of traditional credentials, focusing instead on demonstrated ability to teach, ideological or cultural empathy, and a dedication to the development of the children," according to the survey.

Most of the schools are indigenous to and located in low-income areas of cities and towns. "Weekend schools," which supplement rather than supplant public schools, are more frequently found outside urban areas.

The average enrollment of the schools is about 200 students. The lowest enrollment reported was 22 pupils; the highest was more than 800.

Most of the schools have strong academic curricula, with instruction in foreign languages beginning in the early grades, and many offer instruction in computer literacy. Many have successfully improved the achievement of pupils who came to the them with below-average academic attainment--often to the point that pupils are now working beyond the level that would be expected, given their age and grade, according to the report.

Many of those responding to the survey said education vouchers have "significant promise" for independent schools. Tuition tax credits, however, "were often seen to be irrelevant to the constituencies of these schools, who have small tax liabilities," the survey found.

The roots of minority independent schools extend to 1803, when Prince Hall, a free black man in Boston, opened a school in his home after observing how few black students attended the city's public schools. By 1898, Ms. Ratteray said, there were 34 black academies and 51 black high schools nationwide.

Some of those early schools are still in operation today. The Laurinburg Institute in Laurinburg, N.C., was founded in 1904, when "there weren't a lot of educational opportunities for blacks," according to Frank McDuffie, the school's director and the grandson of its founder. "We started with 15 cents and 12 people who wanted an opportunity," Mr. McDuffie said. Today, the school has a $3.5-million physical plant and enrolls a large number of students from other nations.

The public schools' failure to meet the academic, cultural, and social needs of minority students was described by participants as a central reason for establishing the schools. Many also described the attitudes of racism and discrimination that they viewed as dominant in the public schools. The participants represented about 60 schools, designed to meet the needs of black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Oriental students.

Conference participants seldom mentioned the busing of students for desegregation as a central reason for establishing their schools. In many cases, however, the schools' creation coincided with the desegregation of urban school districts. Those districts, participants said, were graduating minority students who often were achieving poorly in school; some independent schools were founded to reverse that trend. "Self-determination" for students--preparing them to function effectively in a culture that may not be sympathetic to minorities--was also cited as an important motive for founding such schools.

The Omowale Ujamaa Shule in Altadena, Calif., started in 1970 as a cultural center--a pattern that is common among schools founded in the late 1960's, according Sister Naima Olugbala of the school. In 1971, four of the seven staff members had children who were ready to start school. At the same time, the staff members read newspaper reports that 72 percent of the minority students who graduated from the local schools were, in effect, functionally illiterate and had low self-esteem.

"We made a decision that we didn't want to wake up 12 years from that point and find our children in the exact same situation," said Sister Naima. The school opened with 13 pupils and now has 72. "The program has gone through many struggles, but that has never clouded the main issue of self-determination for our children," she said.

'Survival Schools'

American Indians, too, have seen the need to begin operating their own schools, Ms. Ratteray said. Education for American Indians, she noted, has gone through three stages. First, the children were educated in schools operated by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Then, tribal councils began operating schools under contract to the bia Then, primarily in cities, American Indians began establishing "survival schools." Now, the first independent school has opened on an Indian reservation.

Ed Mendoza, one of the parents who founded the Eagle's Nest Tutoring School near Scottsdale, Ariz., envisions the school as providing students with an education that covers both academics and cultural heritage. "We are pretty well versed in the academic areas, but we also have tried to go further in our culture and do our ceremonies," Mr. Mendoza said. "We hope to provide a model for the education community and whoever else might want to look at it."

The Escuela Tlatelolco in Denver, which enrolls pupils of Mexican and American Indian heritage, began in the late 1960's as a "summer freedom school," according to Nita Gonzales of the school. The school was established to "deal with the racism and discrimination that most of us felt in the public schools," Ms. Gonzales said. In 1970, the regular academic school opened with 350 children and a curriculum that ran from preschool through grade 12. After operating for eight years with parent-volunteers as teachers, the school began paying modest salaries in 1978, and in 1980 began charging tuition.

The school chose not to seek outside funds from the federal government or foundations, Ms. Gonzales said, in the interest of maintaining its independence.

The issues are somewhat different for Oriental students, many of whom are performing well in public schools. Hence, the schools established by those ethnic groups are more likely to operate only on weekends, and are designed to acquaint students with the language and culture of the country from which they or their relatives came.

According to Josephine Wang, who works in the Potomac (Md.) Chinese School, there are about five such schools in Maryland and more than 300 on the East Coast. The Potomac school rents space from a local public school and operates on Sunday afternoons.

Many of the students are initially reluctant to spend more time in school, Ms. Wang said, but later come back and tell teachers that they are grateful that they had a chance to learn about their culture.

For many of the schools, participants said, money remains the key issue in their survival. Most operate on extremely modest budgets, relying on tuition, donations, and--in some cases--gifts from foundations or private businesses. Many, howev-er, said they had not sought and would not seek federal money.

The majority of those who made comments following a presentation on education vouchers, however, said they thought that system would be a fair way of getting a return on the taxes they pay to support public education even though they send their children to private schools.

Some of the school directors were pessimistic about the chances for such federal support, however, suggesting that a government that had not helped their children within the system was unlikely to help once they had left it.

Only when the public schools fail white children as badly as they have failed minority children, one California school head said, would the federal government step in with vouchers.

Speakers at the conference outlined a variety of strategies that the schools could use to raise money. Many of the tactics are common to other private schools--sales, raffles, auctions, and the like. Another suggestion, which in some cases had already proven successful, was that the schools solicit the aid of minority-owned businesses.

Establishing a stable financial base was viewed as the key objective by some speakers, one of whom suggested that the schools' goal should be to come back in 50 years, each with a $1-million endowment. An important part of that effort, suggested Irving Hamer Jr. of the Park Heights Street Academy in Baltimore, is hiring a development officer whose central task is raising money.

Another important survival tactic, speakers suggested, is enlisting the support of alumni. Traditional independent schools rely on alumni support and assume that successful alumni will view the continued success of the school as a worthwhile venture.

Many minority schools, however, have not been in operation long enough to have many alumni, and those that do may not see the connection between alumni support and survival.

"We have to look at the traditional independent schools and see what they're doing," one speaker noted.

One black educator from a major urban public-school system who attended the conference suggested in an interview that the independent schools might also enhance their chances for survival if they combined forces. "There are too many of them," he said. "If there are four or five in one area, they should combine." Preventing that, he suggested, may be the desire of those who run the schools to "do their own thing."

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