OAKLAND, Calif. -- One of Oakland’s highest performing schools barely escaped closure last week after coming under scrutiny for shady financial dealings. Supporters of American Indian Charter School argued that the controversy surrounding its founder, Ben Chavis, should not be confused with the school itself.
But for Chinese parents at the school, the man at the center of the scandal – whose unconventional approach to education includes discipline, extended detention and school on Saturdays -- is the reason for the school’s success.
Steven Leung, an immigrant from China and a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Association, says Chinese parents “have a high tolerance for detention” and other disciplinary measures that some might see as extreme or even abusive. “We see this as a way to train our kids,” says Leung.
"Discipline is helpful for building a student's foundation,” adds Michael Yu, head of the school’s PTA. “[American Indian] provides after-school tutoring from 2:30 to 5:30 for students who fail in exams; however, the school also offers extra- curricular activities such as a chess club, an art program, a computer club, and a girls’ club."
These activities are part of the reason, explains Yu -- whose son is in the sixth grade – that students often remain at school well past the final bell. As for reports of humiliation and extended detentions for non-performing students, Yu says the school’s disciplinary methods should “not be described as abusive.”
Last week, the board of the Oakland Unified School District voted to keep American Indian’s doors open, despite reports that more than $1 million in questionable payments went to Chavis and his wife, Martha Amador, who is the school's financial administrator.
Chavis himself is a controversial figure. A report in the San Francisco Chronicle described him as taking a “profanity-laced, no-nonsense approach” to education, one that has earned him both “scorn and national praise.”
In a district populated with underperforming schools that cater to a high percentage of black and Hispanic students, many of them from low-income families, American Indian’s academic success is remarkable. Yet with a student body that is nearly 90 percent Asian American, some question the meaning of that success.
Chavis has been criticized for his attitude toward African-American and Hispanic students. In 2007, he reportedly physically ushered a visiting black graduate student off the school grounds, calling him a “disgrace” to his race.
He is also known to have referred to minority students as “darkies.”
Others question his methods.
“Teachers expect students to be like robots, social life, fun, happiness, and freedom of speech are all discouraged,” reads one anonymous comment on an online school review site.
“Bullying is quite common among many of the kids because this school does not teach any sort of respect for others, despite having so many rules at school,” states another.
But for parents like Yanlin Huang, the trade-off is worth it. "My daughter's GPA improved from 2.89 to 3.56” after entering the school, Huang told the Chinese-language World Journal. “Although I have to wake up at 6 a.m. every day to prepare breakfast, I feel it is worth it.”
That kind of time commitment could be one of the reasons the school remains predominantly Asian, Leung speculates.
“I know several non-Asian students who were unable to take the pressure of long study hours, after-school tutoring or Saturday classes,” Leung says. “The same was true with their parents. When kids study late or attend Saturday school, their parents have to spend extra time picking them up or accompanying them. Therefore, they dropped the classes in the end."
Yu adds that the school’s location, near the city’s Chinatown, makes it a “convenient” option for Chinese parents who live and work in the area.
Chavis, an American Indian who grew up in segregated North Carolina, continues to enjoy the support of many parents at the school. During the school board’s hearing last week, some 200 mostly Chinese parents turned out to show their support, reported the World Journal.
"There are around seven members in the PTA and many of us believe the founder did not take school funding,” says Leung.
Yu adds that even if Chavis “took advantage of the school, it would be unfair to the student body and the parents if the school were shut down.”
That doesn’t appear likely, at least in the short term, after the district’s 4-3 decision to allow the school to remain open. Board members say they will revoke the charter, however, if the problems are not fixed within two years.
For Yu and other parents at American Indian, that’s good news.
“We don't have any other schools with this kind of score in the district," she said.
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