Accuracy in Media

While bureaucrats everywhere puzzle over how to make public school test scores look good, one charter school principal has figured out how to make them go up without score keeping gimmicks.

Ben Chavis is a unique man with an uncommon background: he grew up as a sharecropper on a Native American reservation in North Carolina, and today he leads and operates an impressive charter school-for fun.  Every year, Chavis donates his salary back to the school, and uses the money to take the oldest class of children to visit Washington, D.C.

Ben Chavis, author of Crazy Like a Fox and principal of the American Indian Public Charter School, was a key speaker at “The Nation’s Best Charter Schools,” a CATO Institute event held on October 2, 2009.  Chavis’s methods are unique, and admittedly controversial.  But perhaps this is why, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, students at his charter school “consistently outrank other Oakland middle schools on standardized tests and score among the highest in California.”

Chavis explained his views on the unique challenges facing minority students today; in college, Chavis wrote his dissertation on the results of integration in schools.  “The Indian school was run by Indians, and we all had a job-and now we’re integrated and none of the Indians have a job!  Believe it or not, the graduation rate is lower now for Indians than it was before we had integration, when I grew up.  The number of kids going to college is lower, the kids going to jail has increased,” Chavis said, adding, “I never really thought about [having an Indian school] as discrimination.”

Chavis brings his experiences as a sharecropper to his work as a principal.  He has created a “culture of work” that permeates the school, which includes mandatory summer school and standards so strict that being sixty seconds late for a class will result in detention, and neglecting homework will result in the loss of a seat.  “A seat is an honor,” Chavis said about the policy of making kids sit on the floor if they don’t do their work.

“Students are not victims,” Chavis argued, explaining his belief that “if you are in the sixth grade and you can’t make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you deserve to starve.”  Accordingly, Chavis does not allow “free” lunches on his campus.

However, while Chavis doesn’t allow anything to come free for his students, he does help them out financially when they do well scholastically.  In addition to paying for their eighth-grade graduation trips from Oakland, California to Washington, D.C., Chavis routinely rewards students with money for good work.  He said one way he does this is by walking into classrooms and handing twenty-dollar bills to students who excelled on their tests.  Chavis also told of his success employing local drug dealers as truant officers: right when Chavis began working at the school, he went to the local drug dealers and told them that he would pay them to hunt down his students who were skipping class.  Chavis avers that as a result, drug use went down and school attendance increased, all for cheaper than it would have been to pay for real truancy officers.

In addition to his “culture of work,” Chavis also instated a return to older traditions of teaching: one teacher to one group of kids, all through school, period.  Instead of having different teachers for every class, Chavis’s students have one teacher for every class-and for every class from the sixth grade to the eighth grade.  This, Chavis argued, is important to give students stability.


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