Written during the turbulent 1960s, Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age remains one of the most devastating accounts ever published of racism in the public schools. He describes white teachers at a Boston elementary school, astonishingly oblivious to their own bigotry, compelling black children to confess to wrongdoings of which they're innocent, administering punishment with sharp strokes of the rattan, and-- perhaps worst of all--virtually tutoring them in ignorance as to their own circumstances. As the roof of the school literally falls in, the students are taught poetry that is brutally banal and "uplifting.''
When Kozol, a young teacher at the school, attempts to talk to his students about slavery, he is admonished by a colleague: "I don't want these children to have to think back on this year later on and have to remember that we were the ones who told them they were Negro.''
One would like to think that such attitudes are relics of the past. But the truth is that for many, if not most, African-American students, such racism is yet a fact of life. The public schools in which they are the majority are typically the worst in every way. And where black students become a growing minority, the flight of white students to other schools inevitably follows.
Furthermore, African-American students are less than welcome at many of the schools they do integrate. During a recent visit to a large suburban high school in the Midwest, teachers told me that some of their colleagues openly refer to basic math classes as "monkey math'' and to black students as "city students,'' while referring to white students as "our students.'' Several white students told me that these "city students'' were their school's major problem, bringing with them "their drugs and bad attitudes.''
Understandably, then, more and more African-American parents--traditionally vigorous defenders of public school ideals--are electing to send their children to private schools, and increasingly to all-black private schools. In 1970, there were but a smattering of private AfricanAmerican schools across the country; by 1988, there were 211. Now, according to Joan Davis Ratteray, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Independent Education, an organization that assists black private schools, there are more than 400 such schools, the majority of them located in urban neighborhoods. Roughly half of these schools have a strong religious orientation; most were started by congregations of Christian churches, although 12 of the schools registered with Ratteray's organization are Islamic. Many eschew progressive educational philosophies in favor of a highly structured curriculum.
What parents are looking for in these predominantly African-American private schools, Ratteray says, citing a 1992 survey of 400 parents, is a "nurturing, value-laden environment where they'd feel safe in leaving their children.'' More specifically, they are seeking academic excellence and an education undergirded by cultural and religious values. Families, even those without considerable means, are willing to make a financial sacrifice for what they perceive as a better education. One-half of the students attending these schools, Ratteray says, come from households in which the total family income is less than $30,000 a year.
This all resonates with unstated implications: namely that public schools are neither nurturing nor value-laden. And indeed, as I visited four very different independent AfricanAmerican schools in Atlanta, a city where a large number of such schools are flourishing, this implication became an explicit declaration. Listening to the voices of parents and students, administrators and teachers, it was easy to get the impression that, for many African Americans, public schools are places of chaos, maelstroms in which children could disappear. "When I came into my daughter's classroom as a room mother,'' a parent at Greenforest Christian Academy told me of her child's former public school, "one of the teachers was more concerned with his beeper than with his students; he was answering pages for the real-estate business he had on the side. I actually heard public school teachers say--and this is God's truth--that 'they don't pay me enough to care.' ''
This talk of teachers' remoteness, even indifference to their students, eerily called to mind the advice that Kozol received from colleagues nearly three decades ago: Never maintain a friendly relationship with a student outside the classroom, never have contact with a student outside of school, and never show affection for a student.
Undoubtedly, there are many teachers at both public and private schools who would be troubled by such admonitions. But at most of the AfricanAmerican schools I visited in Atlanta, the faculties were attempting to replace the "never'' with a categorical "always.''
At Greenforest Christian Academy, a sprawling Baptist prep school of 250 K-9 students, two deferential girls in plaid uniforms escorted me to the office of principal Ronald Boykins. A former army officer and assistant professor of military science who favors starched shirts and immaculately pressed dark suits, Boykins is what students might call "nononsense,'' though in demeanor he's more evangelistic than military. Tall and powerfully built, a kind of solemn fervor sometimes infuses his almost imposing dignity. When captivated by a given subject, his sentences unfold into paragraphs, delivered with a deliberate, almost mournful cadence.
While pursuing a graduate degree in education at the University of Arizona, Boykins taught at a Phoenix public high school, where he ran up against the depressingly familiar problems of gangs, violence, and chronic truancy. It was during this period that he visited the acclaimed Piney Woods Country Life School, an African-American boarding school in Mississippi. "Piney Woods was different from anything I had ever experienced before,'' Boykins said. "The focus of the kids was absolutely incredible. I spent a lot of time there, asking myself, Why were the kids so involved? What were they doing that other schools weren't? After a time, the answer became apparent: The kids were simply responding to the extraordinary care the faculty had for them. Teachers were getting down and talking with their students. They were getting intimate with kids.
"So when I came here, I knew that we had to try to cross lines, to break down the traditional role of student-teacher, student-principal. We'll do whatever is legal, right, and necessary to reach the kids.''
Boykins' Phoenix experience has left him skeptical about the ability of public schools to reach students, especially African-American students. He believes that teachers have to teach the "whole'' child. To do that, he said, they have to know a student's interests and troubles, something the sheer numbers in most public schools make almost impossible. Furthermore--and here the principal cited an article he had written titled "The Truth Shall Set You Free: Your Child Deserves A Christian Education''--the public school can approach only the social dimension of the child. With the emotional and spiritual element diminished, if not eradicated, the teacher becomes a distant figure, Boykins said, as if seen through the small end of binoculars. What the adults lose in stature, the peer group gains, its influence dangerously unchecked.
Boykins was enumerating all the things he and his faculty do with students--pizza parties, pick-up basketball games--when he suddenly, in mid-sentence, walked over to an easel and began flipping pages until he came to a primitive sketch of a pair of scissors hovering above a telephone, about to cut the cord. "We are about to declare war on the telephone, the television,'' he said. "We've begun to talk about how the telephone and TV become the link to gossip, jealousy, temptation. We must cut the link.''
Boykins flipped to another page on the easel that contained the formula: Action = Thinking + Believing. "We've been focusing on action, the kids' behavior, when we need to focus on the components of behavior--the thinking and believing that determine behavior. And what a young person thinks is based on what he or she sees and hears. These are the things we must control.''
The idea that African-American kids are not, as is commonly believed, alienated from the mainstream of American life but, in fact, all too immersed in its destructive aspects was a theme iterated not only at Greenforest Christian Academy but at the other schools I visited, as well. While the students at the academy were, by and large, middle class, the students at these other schools frequently were not, and the stressed-out families and troubled communities in which many of them lived rendered them particularly susceptible to a culture of consumerism that celebrates ephemeral pleasure. As Sister Safiyyah Shahid, principal of an Islamic elementary and secondary school I visited, later told me: "Sometimes, it almost seems as if there's a conspiracy to put our children in a direction that is fruitless. There's such an emphasis on material trappings and quick payoffs that kids learn that if you're going to get somewhere, it's got to be by way of a shortcut.''
Of course, being middle class did not insulate Boykins' students from the excesses of American culture. Many of their parents had newly acquired wealth and showered luxuries upon their children; a number, for example, had televisions in their bedrooms, replete with cable. As a Christian school--a Baptist church spire rises above the campus-- Greenforest uses the Gospel as a counterweight to the prevailing popular culture. This kind of teaching was most evident in an 8th grade Bible class I visited, taught by Jennifer Boykins, the principal's wife.
The day's theme was "patience,'' and the students were busy searching out Bible passages Jennifer Boykins had written on the board. "In Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John, there are many comments about the need for patience, tolerance, endurance,'' the teacher said. "If you stand firm, you will win your soul.''
"Be patient with everyone?'' one student asked skeptically.
"Rich, poor, lepers with sores, the young children you teach ...,'' the teacher said.
"But Jesus didn't deal with young kids.''
"Jesus dealt with everyone,'' Boykins said. "He went through pain.''
Here a boy interjected, "Jesus cried, he suffered, he asked, 'Why hast Thou forsaken me?' ''
Jennifer Boykins spoke with an unfeigned, almost startling intensity, to which the students responded with great earnestness. What, students asked, if someone strikes you or shoots you with a gun? "Love your enemies and pray for them,'' the teacher said.
"I've been praying for stuff and still don't get it,'' a student said, to which a boy responded with a quote from Romans: "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love the Lord. ...''
Religion was infused into all aspects of the curriculum. During a math class in which 4th graders were learning how to calculate mass, the teacher told the momentarily stumped students, "God brought about the universe out of murky chaos. God ordered the universe so we could find our place in it. Remember that when you do your math.''
After class, I talked to the teacher, Glenna Calvin, who had taught in the New York public school system for nearly 20 years before coming last year to Greenforest. Early in her career, Calvin had been deeply involved in a number of social education programs, such as sex education, but began to believe their impact was negligible.
"We spend billions of dollars on all these manuals, all these programs,'' she said. "But programs don't address the real issue of evil. If you look at Christ in the world, you see he was tempted but persisted. He gave us that example to follow. Satan is behind drugs, behind sex. To tell a youngster to 'just say no' is unrealistic. You must empower the child with the power of the Holy Spirit.''
I asked Calvin if she applauded the efforts of more and more public schools to teach their students about the African-American experience.
"It's absurd to think you can teach the AfricanAmerican experience in the absence of God,'' she said. "Think of Nat Turner, who was a preacher, Dr. King, Harriet Tubman. How could anyone possibly teach these people without God? That's why the so-called African-American emphasis isn't working. You can reject a social studies lesson--it's only when God is the lesson that you have problems. Without God, you're giving us lip service, and that's all the public schools are giving us: lip service.''
Before I left Greenforest Academy, I visited once more with Boykins, asking him what he would do if he were somehow to wake up and find himself superintendent of the Atlanta public schools. He began to answer the question with a diplomatic caution, speaking of the need to bring together teachers and parents. Then, as if he were perturbed by the tepid conventionality of his own answer, he shook his head, took a deep breath, and went off on a different tack altogether:
"Our faculty has spent a whole year on the book of Nehemiah and education, trying to draw a parallel between the two. Nehemiah went to the King who said, 'Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick?' Nehemiah said he was sad because the walls of Jerusalem had fallen down, and the city was in disgrace. 'I want to be a tool to rebuild the city,' Nehemiah said. Well, whether we're executives at IBM or Hewlett-Packard, we're in disgrace when the walls are down. At the public schools, the walls are coming down. They're in disgrace, but they don't seem to care.''
New Haugabrooks Academy, the oldest African-American independent school in Atlanta, is located in a neighborhood of bungalows and Cape Cods in various stages of dilapidation. A squat brick structure, the school could be a small textiles factory. Inside, the hallways and classrooms are austere and immaculate; the gleaming floors seem to underline the emphasis the school places on order. In the assembly room, an electronic bingo scoreboard hangs, like a carefully centered painting, on the brick wall. Elaine Lipson, the school's headmistress, explained to me that bingo had been instituted as a way to raise much-needed funds but that it was being phased out. It was inappropriate, she and others had come to feel, for the school to be in any way associated with gambling.
Lipson, a gracious woman with a grandmotherly air, told me that the school was founded in 1948 by E.M.V. Sullivan, who had resigned a position in a public school when "they took prayer and discipline out.'' Initially a small day-care center, New Hauga- brooks expanded over the years so that it is now a K-5 elementary school with 80 students from both poor and middle-class families.
Although the school is not affiliated with a church or religious denomination, the students participate daily in morning devotions. Like Boykins and Calvin at Greenforest Academy, Lipson disdained the notion of an Afrocentric curriculum devoid of religion.
"We do teach our kids about their heritage, their leaders, what we've endured as African Americans,'' she told me. "But here we call King Reverend Martin Luther King, whereas many people tend to talk about him as if he were just some kind of philosopher. But putting up a poster of King and talking about him as a great leader isn't enough. The children need to know about his life of prayer, the role his mother played in shaping his beliefs.''
Prayer and discipline, Lipson said, were the cornerstones of a New Haugabrooks education. Students were made aware of school rules at the beginning of the year and were expected to follow them to the letter. They were also trained to perform certain academic tasks within an allotted time frame. "We know where our students should be in their textbooks at any given time,'' Lipson said with some pride.
As I toured the school, it became apparent that discipline was indeed paramount. New Haugabrooks was the paragon of the traditional school as I imagined it at the turn of the century in conservative rural communities. Students sat at desks aligned with an almost mathematical certitude, working, by and large, in wordless isolation. The on-task studentworkers were watched over by teachers who were as vigilant as foremen.
"Discipline,'' Lipson said back in her office, "is the way to self-assurance, esteem, character. Young children simply can't handle freedom. The problem with the public schools is that discipline is zero. When they said teachers could no longer chastise, when they said students could move about on their own, things began to get out of control.
"It's not just the school; it's the entire society. It used to be that girls who got pregnant couldn't come back to school. Now they come in like regular students, chatting happily away. We never tell the downside. Instead, we talk about the baby kicking, how cute and lovable babies are. We never tell them the real story, that there'll be pain and suffering, that raising a child can be an enormous burden. Somebody down the road said we should change things, that students shouldn't have to answer to a moral code.''
It was tempting to see the disciplinary emphasis at New Haugabrooks as unduly oppressive, but there were certain things that made me think twice. For one, the teachers were by no means callous martinets. The child, Lipson had said, must be treated with respect, love, and affection, and this was indisputably the case. The teachers, with all of their vested authority, had obvious empathy for their students. Discipline, as they construed it, was not a lever to ensure mindless obedience, not a sort of Ritalin substitute, but rather a benign conditioning that would routinize good habits.
At New Haugabrooks, and to a lesser extent at Greenforest Christian Academy, training in basic skills was discipline's identical twin. Cooperative learning, authentic assessment, process writing--all the freight of progressive educators--had not found their way across the border, so to speak. While white suburban schools may jettison the more plodding aspects of teaching basic skills in favor of more fashionable holistic approaches, these African-American educators felt that there was sometimes no alternative but to have students master subject matter, step by methodical step.
Here again, one is tempted to complain: Aren't students being fastened into an academic straitjacket? The answer, though, is less than clear-cut. In a benchmark 1986 essay, "Skills and Other Dilemmas of Progressive Black Educators,'' published in the Harvard Educational Review, Lisa Delpit, a researcher at the Institute for Urban Research in Baltimore, told of her experience teaching in an open classroom in a racially mixed Philadelphia school. While her white students "zoomed ahead,'' flourishing in the new freedom, her black students lingered far behind, seemingly unable to gain a footing. What had gone wrong?
In graduate school, Delpit had learned a progressive creed: Students should write only in meaningful contexts, and their speech and writing should not be corrected. Yet reflecting upon her own childhood education, Delpit realized that her parents and teachers had corrected her every word and that "in elementary school I diagrammed thousands of sentences, filled in ten thousands of blanks, and never wrote ...'' Her tentative conclusion is that black students, especially black students who are not middle class, need skills before fluency. She quotes a black student who is highly critical of a composition teacher who keeps telling her students just to let their prose flow: "Maybe [white people] are trying to learn what black folks knew all the time. We understand how to improvise, how to express ourselves creatively. When I'm in a classroom, I'm not looking for that. I'm looking for structure, the more formal language.''
Two years later, in a clarifying essay, "The Silenced Dialogue,'' also published in the Harvard Educational Review, Delpit spoke of black teachers who couldn't help believing that progressive educational strategies are "based on a desire to ensure that the liberals' children get sole access to the dwindling pool of American jobs.'' In any case, Delpit asserts, "If you are not already a participant in the culture of power''--for example, white and middleclass--"being told explicitly what the rules of that culture are makes acquiring power easier.'' With their emphasis on discipline and basic skills, AfricanAmerican schools such as New Haugabrooks and Greenforest Christian Academy are ensuring, at the very least, that their students master the rules of that culture.
As I traveled from the leafy suburbs of Greenforest Christian Academy to the urban zone of the Islamic Clara Mohammed School, I wondered if I might not encounter a degree of suppressed hostility. After all, I had been bombarded through the media with angry images of American Islamic leader Louis Farakahn and his followers. But the administrators, teachers, and students at both Clara Mohammed and the affiliated W. Deen Mohammed High School were inviting and reflective, demonstrating that my preconceptions were but the standard stuff of bias.
In her book-lined office, Safiyyah Shahid, principal of both schools, explained that in the 1970s the late Islamic leader Elijah Muhammad--son of Sister Clara, after whom the elementary school is named-- began to move the African-American Islamic community away from its predominant concern with blackness toward a more universal, all-encompassing Islam. Islam, she continued, embraced all religions, the Koran teaching its devout to judge people as they are. While the 220 students at Clara Mohammed School and the 80 at W. Deen Mohammed explore the African-American experience in depth, Shahid said she and other staff members are skeptical of Afrocentrism, as it tends to warp into a parochial ethnocentrism. As the chairwoman of the English department, Sandra El-Amin, later told me: "We can't even say the African experience is superior. We say the African is a worthy individual, as are other individuals. We're trying to get beyond deceptive differences, and I don't think distortion is any kind of answer.''
Shahid's own journey is somewhat emblematic of the sort of spiritual and psychological migration taken by her generation of African-American women. The daughter of a rural Baptist minister, she became in the early 1960s acutely aware of the social problems of African Americans. As a member of Martin Luther King Jr.'s church and a babysitter for his children, she had a profound sense of living on the cusp of a movement that would transform history. But she began to feel that King's courageous but necessarily tortuous movement would take too long, and in 1967, at the age of 20, she herself was transformed when she was introduced by a friend to the Nation of Islam. "It was amazing in that Islam brought about immediate results,'' she said. "You could see people get off drugs, alcohol overnight. The message of self-respect was that powerful.''
Earlier, as a freshman in high school, Shahid had been one of an elite group of academically gifted students selected to begin the integration of Atlanta's public schools. Just before the new school year was to start, school officials eliminated her from the desegregation plan.
"I remember being devastated by that experience,'' she said. "I just didn't have the strategies to cope with rejection. Later on, when I saw the problems that integration brought about, I was glad I had not been accepted.''
Shahid emphasized that she has no problem with integration per se but with coercive, if not mandated, desegregation. It is impossible to compel racial acceptance, she insisted; besides, the premise behind much of desegregation is that the presence of one group (whites) would ameliorate the other (blacks)-- an unacceptable premise to Muslims.
As with the previous schools I visited, discipline is at the forefront of a Clara Mohammed education. Here, though, the goal is entirely for students to internalize discipline as a code of self-reliance. Doing for self, cleansing one's body and morals, following Islamic law, accepting the consequences of one's actions--all of these things are to be deeply ingrained. Every day at 12:50 p.m., students--both Muslim and non-Muslim--take part in a cleansing rite before filing into an auditorium and facing in the direction of Mecca to pray. Such religious rituals are bulwarks against distraction, intended to keep the world of temptation at arm's length.
Implicit in the school's Islamic-based education is the notion of deflecting the encroaching culture. This called to mind Boykins' sketch of the scissors cutting the telephone cord, severing the conduit of gossip, jealousy, and temptation. Much of this "cutting of the cord'' at Clara Mohammed and W. Deen Mohammed has to do with short-circuiting messages--promulgated in rap music and the movies--that degrade women. While both schools are coeducational, girls and female faculty members are veiled, and there is an implicit understanding that mingling between the sexes is to be kept to a minimum.
"We nurture a respect for women and emphasize the inherent goodness of the mother's nature,'' Shahid said. "In the Koran it says, 'Paradise lies at the foot of the mother.' Students complain that we're too strict, but we don't encourage social interaction between boys and girls. There's no carrying on here, no kissing in the hallways.''
What would happen, I asked, if that occurred?
"We'd kill them,'' she said, laughing. "The touching and kissing come after marriage. Chastity is part of the Islamic message. Theoretically, they all buy into that. Whether they practice it outside of school is a different question.''
El-Amin, the English department chairwoman, took me on a tour, and it was easy to see why both the elementary school and the high school are receiving record numbers of applications from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. (Currently, 12 percent of the students are non-Muslim). Neither drifting into chaos nor settling into regimentation, the classrooms were marked by the kind of purposeful activity that most parents (and educators) would find ideal. During my visit, the elementary grades were working on what they called the Tuskeegee Project, which explores the work of George Washington Carver. Earlier, students had made peanut butter; now they were putting together reports, collages, and laboratory experiments. The project would culminate in a visit to the Tuskeegee Institute, where the Carver Foundation is located.
Of her own teaching, El-Amin said it was vital that she establish order in the classroom, as this sets the stage for student discussion. Her high school classes read renowned African-American authors such as Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison. But because she wants her students to see that "certain universal truths are revealed in every culture,'' she also has them read a great deal of world literature. Recently, they read Albert Camus' classic existential work The Stranger, in which the alienated protagonist murders an Arab almost, it seems, out of bored indifference. I asked El-Amin what her students thought of the central character.
"They think,'' she said, "that his problem is that he doesn't believe in anything.''
The last school I visited, the FreeForm Academy, had been described in an Atlanta newspaper article as a private preschool built on the progressive educational theories of such thinkers as Rousseau and Piaget. Located on the second floor of a Baptist church, FreeForm was founded in 1992 by two Morehouse College graduates in their early 20s. They chose the name because they hoped to spur wideranging creativity (hence "Free'') that would be expressed within a carefully designed structure (hence "Form''). I did not meet principal Ayize Sabater; he travels frequently these days, trying to franchise the FreeForm concept.
The little I had heard about FreeForm sounded promising, yet my visit there, albeit brief, was disappointing. There was only one teacher--or "educational strategist,'' as she called herself--present. She had good rapport with the children but was somewhat overwhelmed; two other teachers, she told me, had been taken ill, leaving only her to deal with 15 small children.
At the other schools I had visited, there was an implicit, if unspoken, understanding among the students that self-esteem could only be achieved through hard work and genuine accomplishment. At FreeForm, on the other hand, I observed a host of self-esteem-building exercises, which, undertaken in a vacuum, seemed about as meaningful as weight lifting might be for croquet players. "I am healthy, I am great, I am happy,'' chanted the children. "I'm in control of my mind, I love myself, I see myself in everyone I meet. ...'' Later, the chorus took an Afrocentric twist: "I am the black child. ... All the world awaits my coming. ...''
Twice the teacher left the room to answer the telephone, and the moment she departed the children began to fight. I, the reporter, struggled to maintain order. Finally, I asked the children what they liked to play, and a group of boys bellowed out a list of electronic games: "Rangers,'' "Axeman,'' "Aladdin,'' "Ninja Turtles,'' and so on.
I may have arrived on a bad day, but it seemed clear in any case that FreeForm had a ways to go before it could claim success.
In an article written a few years ago entitled "Racism Without Racism,'' Grace Massey, Mona Scott, and Sanford Dornbusch argued that a newer, perhaps even more pernicious brand of racism was fermenting in public schools: Instead of expressing outright hostility, as many once did, white teachers were expressing a friendliness toward their African-American students that too often concealed a desire to placate. The authors, who spent a year studying an integrated San Francisco high school, discovered that black students were receiving the most praise even though they were doing the least amount of work and receiving by far the lowest grades. The authors concluded that "oppression can rise out of warmth, friendliness, and concern.''
The article struck a chord with me not long ago when, while visiting a predominantly white suburban school with a leavening of urban black students, a white teacher told me that black kids were often permitted to linger in classroom doorways, even after the bell had rung and the white kids were in their seats. It wasn't that the teachers were trying to avoid confrontation, or even that they were especially intimidated, she said, but that they just didn't care what the black students did. These students wouldn't learn in any case, the teachers' attitudes seemed to be, so why not just leave them to their own means?
Perhaps more than anything else, the successful African-American schools I visited uniformly communicated to their students a sense of high hopes. The students were expected to achieve, and the emphasis on discipline and the mastery of specific skills and subject matter put them in a position to experience success. What was practiced at these schools might be called "tough love.'' Teachers had empathy for their students, but implicit in that concern was an unwillingness to "ride along'' with student laziness or ineptitude.
A public school is not, of course, a private school, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that the former merely emulates the other. However, these indepen- dent African-American schools, for all of their differences, share common assumptions about the nature of education that are worth paying attention to:
- They believe that an Afrocentric education concentrating upon shoring up ethnic pride is insufficient, and even wrongheaded. While teachers and administrators at the schools insisted that students must learn about African-American history and the black experience, they just as adamantly insisted that any such curriculum that does not go far beyond boosterism and self-esteem building is unlikely to have any impact. They argued that students' encounters with their history must be in-depth; that is, students must peer under the surface of events and biographies to the suffering, courage, and vision that has shaped them. Furthermore, these educators claim that one cannot talk about the African-American experience without addressing religion--admittedly a troublesome topic for most teachers in public schools.
- They believe students must somehow be shielded from the more destructive influences of peer pressure and a surrounding culture that too often celebrates violence, sexuality, and consumerism. How exactly they propose to do this is unclear. They do require students to wear uniforms (as do virtually all AfricanAmerican independent schools). In any case, the leaders of these schools believe that merely teaching kids to "just say no'' is inadequate; before a child can "say no,'' he or she must have developed self-respect and a positive view of life.
- They believe that schools should not do the job of the parents. "One of our missions,'' said Boykins of Greenforest, "is to have parents understand that the school can't be just a 'drop-off.' We can't do for their children what they must do.'' Elaborating further, Shahid of Clara Mohammed and W. Deen Mohammed said the more responsibilities schools take upon themselves the more exonerated of responsibility parents feel. "Parents left the [public] schools because schools didn't see parents as significant players in their children's education,'' she said. "Too often, they see school as a panacea, and that's a problem.'' Her feeling, shared by others, is that the school's job must not be to "substitute'' for parents but rather to involve parents, calling them back to their own responsibilities.
- Most important perhaps, they believe that teachers should form close relationships with their students. The teachers at these schools reject the notion that professionalism--and here we must return to the advice that young Jonathan Kozol received from his colleagues so many years ago--demands a certain detachment, an emotional remoteness that too often results in aloofness from students.
If one of the functions of education is to ensure that students strive toward high expectations, then teachers need to approach their work with both the passion of the amateur and the competence of the professional. The teachers at these African-American schools believe that they must, if they are to inspire and not just manage, make an emotional and even spiritual commitment to their students. Perhaps this is a commitment that all schools--private and public, white and black--would do well to share.
Vol. 05, Issue 09, Page 1-24