Black Private Academies Are Held Up as Filling Void Seen as ‘Response to Desperate Situation’

By Mark Walsh — March 13, 1991 11 min read
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Every weekday, Janet Saboor drives 20 miles each way, past public elementary schools and other private schools, to bring her son to the Atlanta Progress Academy. “We took him out when we moved farther away, but we decided to bring him back here,” she said last month of Kariem, a 6th grader at the small private school, located in a lower-middle- class black neighborhood on this city’s southwest side.

“The number of students in a classroom was just overwhelming in public school,” she added. “And it is very important for our children that their culture be stressed.”

At the academy, the African heritage of the 55 students in prekindergarten through 6th grade is, indeed, the emphasis.

“We teach them that their history doesn’t start with a slave ship. It goes back thousands of years.”

The Atlanta Progress Academy is one of several hundred private schools across the nation established by black educators to serve an almost exclusively black student population.

Most of the schools are in urban neighborhoods, where they serve small student enrollments, typically on a shoestring budget. The majority are elementary schools; a few also include secondary grades or are self-contained high schools.

While many such schools stress African culture throughout their programs, others offer traditional curricula or emphasize religious teachings.

The number of these schools and the size of their enrollments appear to have grown over the past five years as more black parents apparently have become dissatisfied with the performance of the public schools.

“The network of African-American independent schools is a response to the desperate situation of education for African-Americans in the public-school system,” said Molefi Kete Asante, chairman of the department of African-American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The private academies represent “a remarkably productive thrust in education in America, particularly at the elementary level,” he said.

The Institute for Independent Education, a small, nonprofit research organization in Washington that studies and assists black private schools, estimates that, as of last year, there were at least 284 “independent neighborhood schools” nationwide in which enrollment was almost entirely African-American. The institute’s figures do not include the many inner-city Roman Catholic schools whose enrollments are heavily black. Nor is there any significant overlap between the black academies and the membership of the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents most nonprofit, independent preparatory schools in the United States.

Many black private schools are operated on a for-profit basis, experts say.

Joan Davis Ratteray, director of the I.I.E., acknowledged that hard data on the growth of such schools are somewhat sketchy. Some of the schools are so small, she said, that they come into existence and then fold without ever coming to her institute’s attention.

And hardly a week goes by that Ms. Ratteray does not learn of the existence of another small black private school, including ones that have been in operation for several years.

“We are learning more and more every day about this universe of schools,” she said.

Among all private schools, according to institute figures, small, independent black schools are second only to Catholic schools in the number of black children enrolled.

An estimated 52,744 African-American students were enrolled in black private schools in 1988-89, a study released last year by the institute found. By comparison, Catholic schools enrolled 226,590 black students that year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association, while the NAIS recorded an enrollment of 16,230 blacks in its member schools.

The vast majority of African-American pupils in the United States attend public schools--an estimated 6.7 million, according to the I.I.E.

While black private schools’ share of student enrollment is slim, there are signs that the schools are having an impact on some of the most hotly debated public-policy issues in education: private-school choice, African-centered curricula, and the creation of separate or special public schools tailored to black students, especially males.

The black academies, some educators say, provide both an alternative to troubled public schools and a model for particular approaches that are adaptable to the public system.

In Milwaukee, for example, several grassroots black academies are participating in a nationally watched voucher experiment that allows 260 children of low-income families to attend nonsectarian private schools at state expense. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1990.)

And in New York City, a former administrator of a black private school in Brooklyn developed a proposal for creation of the Ujamaa Institute, a public high school with a multicultural curriculum that would be geared to the needs of black and Hispanic males. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1991.)

“There is a sense that something is not happening in the mainstream of public schools for a majority of black children,” said Ms. Ratteray. “Parents find refuge” in black private schools, she added. “But the refuge is seen as short-lived. There is still the problem of how the public- school system is affecting the masses of black children.” Although many institutions in the current wave of black private schools were established in the 1980’s, the United States has a long tradition of such schools that dates back to the Revolutionary War, according to Ms. Ratteray.

African-Americans first established their own schools in the late 1700’s because they were barred from the institutions that served the white elite of the day, she said.

Black schools saw several cycles of growth up until the desegregation era of the 1950’s and 1960’s, when many black parents felt the need to support the public schools. But the seemingly intractable problems of many big-city school systems--violence, lagging student achievement, excessive bureaucracy--prompted many emerging middle-class black families to seek out private educational options beginning in the 1970’s. They turned not just to black-centered schools, but also to Catholic schools and other private institutions. (See Education Week, Dec. 6, 1986.)

No ‘Right To Fail’

Today, black private schools make up a diverse group of institutions that are not easily categorized.

Some, like the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, specialize in a rigorous, classically oriented curriculum that has some of its youngest students reading Plato and Socrates.

“They don’t have the right to fail in this school,” Marva Collins, the founder of Westside Prep, said of her more than 200 students. The plain- spoken educator has gained recognition nationwide for her success at teaching urban minority children. Many other black private schools have a Christian orientation, such as the Solid Rock Academy in Riverdale, Ga., an Atlanta suburb.

The 150 pupils there wear uniforms, attend daily religious services, and study a traditional curriculum that also includes a large dose of African-American history.

“The American public school system has become stalemated because they have taken a lot of the discipline out,” said Judith W. Lyon, the academy’s director.

Sister Clara Muhammad schools, named for the wife of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, are in operation in several cities. The schools stress the tenets of the Black Muslim faith.

An increasing number of independent neighborhood schools for black children, meanwhile, are offering African and African-American history and culture, incorporating black cultural traditions not only into the curriculum but throughout the school day.

Some call themselves “pan-African” and identify their schools as African-centered more than African-American.

“African-centered independent schools socialize with a different view of how society ought to look,” said Mwalimu J. Shujaa, the national executive officer of the Council of Independent Black Institutions.

“Our schools grew out of a desire for a change in our society,” he said.3

Mr. Shujaa, who is an assistant professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said CIBI was founded in 1972 as the “first step toward a national African-American educational system.” Among its original goals was the development of a national African-American teacher corps.

The council currently represents about 30 African-centered private schools in 14 states, Mr. Shujaa said.

Some of the schools often sound more radical in their philosophy than they really are, he added.

“Public schools are agents of the social order,” said Mr. Shujaa, who was also the founder of an African-centered school in Trenton, N.J. “They are set up to maintain the status quo, and that is an inherent limitation.”

“However,” he continued, “African-centered independent schools are not limited in responsibility to reproduce the status quo in social and power relations.”

Cibi recently published a social-studies curriculum that focuses on the Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles of “blackness” identified by the African-American educator Maulana Karenga. The council also conducts teacher institutes for instructors from its member schools.

The Atlanta Progress Academy is not a formal member of cibi, but its founders say they agree with much of the council’s philosophy.

Jawila Owuo-Hagood, the academy’s director, said the school evolved from a small child-care service she began in the basement of her sister’s house in 1984.

The service soon became a home school that was serving 12 children, with a waiting list of many more. This school year, Ms. Owuo-Hagood, a veteran teacher in a number of small private schools, and her husband Michael Hagood, a printer who has worked at the academy for about three years, realized their dream of expanding the program. The couple took out a loan and moved the school into the unused educational facility of a Episcopal church here. Enrollment jumped to 55 students this year.

“We’re definitely planning to grow; we ideally would like to get 100 students and stop there,” Ms. Owuo-Hagood said.

Like small private schools of many kinds, the academy tries to make up for what it lacks in state-of-the-art facilities with the kind of individual attention that can result from low teacher-student ratios.

The two founders handle much of the teaching load themselves, along with one other full-time teacher. The school contracts out for part-time science, computer, Spanish, and swimming instructors.

Several parents volunteer at the school, either out of choice or to help reduce their tuition costs, which run $280 a month for the 10-month regular school year.

Running a small private school can provide lessons in modesty.

On one recent day, Mr. Hagood rushed from his noon class to the kitchen to finish cooking lunch. He had arrived at about 7 A.M. to begin preparing the meal, and he served his beans and rice to hungry students for nearly an hour before cleaning the kitchen himself and then returning to the classroom.

To the children enrolled here, Ms. Owuo-Hagood is Sister Jawila and Mr. Hagood is Brother Matungi. Older teachers or visitors might be greeted with “mama” or “baba,” be cause “in Africa, they don’t call each other Mr. or Mrs.,” said Ms. Owuo-Hagood.

The students have named their classroom “Yoruba,” after a tribe in Nigeria, and the word is printed in cutout letters above the chalkboard. The back wall is topped with the word “Umoja,” for the Nguzo Saba principle of unity.

According to the school’s leaders, many of the pupils are well advanced academically, with most, for example, reading above grade level.

Like Ms. Saboor, other parents of Atlanta Progress Academy pupils interviewed here said they were drawn to the school by some of the traditional attractions of private schooling, such as small classes and strong academics.

In addition, the parents agreed, the African-centered curriculum in stills in their children a pride and confidence that the public schools fail to provide.

“My gripes with the public schools are that teachers don’t control the classroom, they celebrate holidays I don’t consider important, and you cannot drop in when you want,” said Denise Whitsett, a mother of two children at the school who is also its part-time computer instructor.

“A parent can be more involved here,” she said.

Iilonga Thandiwe, a volunteer who also has two children enrolled, said the growth of the academy and schools like it represent a long-overdue “resurgence of Afrocentric consciousness.”

“It is a financial strain for us to send our children here,” she said, “but the consequences of not doing it is that you shortchange your children.”

Some educators have expressed a concern that African-centered curricula and school organization may inhibit black youngsters from learning to get along with people of other races. But Mr. Hagood argues that his school is “not separating the African children from society. If any thing, society has already done that. The Atlanta Progress Academy seems far removed from swirling de bates about such ideas as private- school choice. But administrators of other black private schools are plunging into the fray.

Officials of at least 24 black private schools last year formed the Independent Education Network, which is affiliated with the Institute for Independent Education, Ms. Ratteray’s organization.

At the network’s meeting last July, the force behind the Milwaukee voucher proposal, State Representative Polly Williams of Wisconsin, was enthusiastically received as a speaker.

Still, Ms. Ratteray said, some of the schools in the network are “very cautious about choice.”

“If [vouchers are] the wave of the future, how many others will get up and start schools” because of the economic incentives, she asked.

Existing small private schools “have not been driven by school as a business, but by the fact there was a social need,” Ms. Ratteray said. “If you put on it this idea that each kid will bring a certain amount of money, it will change that.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Black Private Academies Are Held Up as Filling Void Seen as


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