By Tanya Dennis
In 1972 while working on my Masters at Peabody Vanderbilt University, our sociology teacher came into class and said, “I want to read to you the requirements for passing this class.” As she read a long list of expectations you could feel the unease in the classroom. Nobody felt they would pass that test.
After she finished the two pages of requirements, she held up the document and said, “This was the requirements to pass the 8th grade in Pennsylvania in 1860, an era of the one room classroom.”
That memory resonated with me as I listened to Ben Chavis, former principal of American Indian High School recount a similar experience while in Wisconsin. Davis shared a memory of a 16 year old Amish girl who taught her students in a one room classroom and beat every local high school in math. Chavis said that moment was the epiphany that would guide him through his illustrious career as a teacher and educational administrator. “The Amish were whipping the Public School’s butt academically, and the teacher was only sixteen years old! She was successful because she worked those kids hard and made them learn. We should have our kids in school studying during the summer rather running the streets. The Koret Foundation, a Jewish Foundation were the ones that gave me money to start my first AP class.”
“School isn’t about fun, it’s about practice and preparedness. Andrew Coulson did a study researching kid’s scores on the SAT and advanced placement. What Coulson discovered was, if you go to American Indian you will score higher than some of the best Asian high achievers at Lowell High. I can beat anybody in California. I created the system. Repetition and rote. There’s not enough repetition and rote in today’s schools because rote has become a bad word. But it works and it’s just common sense. How can you achieve without preparedness? There’s no achievement gap! How can you talk about achievement when you haven’t prepared the kids?
Chavez’ straight talk is backed up by his actions and his actions have gotten results dreamed impossible.
American Indian Public High School, located in Oakland, California, a charter high school, utilizes the one room concept, the kids don’t move from class to class, the teachers do. American is among the few high schools in California to receive a distinguished Great Schools Rating of 10 out of 10.
79 – 81% of students using the American Indian Model (AIM) pass calculus. All seniors have to take it, even students in Special Ed take Calculus. And if kids don’t pass, Chavez retains them. “We have kids that have been here for 6 years. I was retained, I believe in retention because it changed my life.”
Explaining his curriculum Chavez admits he puts a heavy emphasis on Math. “If you spend seven years with us, you’re getting three hours of math a day, 200 days a year multiplied seven years that’s 1400 days and 4200 hours of math by the time a kid graduates from our school. In contrast, look at any American school or any school in Oakland and the kid has 180 days with 1 hour of math times 6 times, that’s 1080 hours of math by the time they graduate. That’s why they can’t touch us.
And they can’t. American Indian High students are predominantly low-income, minorities, and their test scores are superior to almost all public schools in the state.