KANSAS CITY, MO.—Before starting their project, a quartet of fifth-graders at J.S. Chick elementary school decides to make a pledge. They raise their right hands and promise they’ll do their best work to honor Malcolm X. Then they busily create a collage and an essay about his life as a civil rights leader, a one-time prisoner, and a Muslim.
“He influenced me to be my best at everything I want to do . . . and to set goals in order to achieve,” a wide-eyed Mariah Wright declares when asked what she’s learned from studying Malcolm X.
Down the hall, half a dozen fourth-grade boys in the “Tanzania” classroom gather in a line, facing a student leader. They march in place with one arm raised as if holding a shield. Among the chants they offer up, based on an African rite of passage, is an affirmation of unity: “Together we will work. Together we will win.”
At Chick, everything from the curriculum to the interactions between teachers and parents is based on the history and culture of Africa and its diaspora. A public magnet school, it welcomes people of all backgrounds, but 99 percent of its 300 students are African-American.
Its success is measured not only by test scores that are above the statewide average, but also by students learning to see themselves as leaders, entrepreneurs, and contributors to the community. The African-centered approach, like many school-reform efforts focused on various themes, relies largely on family involvement and developing curriculum and teaching skills to bring out students’ strengths.
Each Monday morning at Chick, the whole school participates in harambee, a Swahili word for “coming together.” As students drum and lead self-affirming chants and dances, the room vibrates with the cadences of a community.
Teachers call up students who have earned “rosettes”—awards for attendance, academics, and managing their behavior. It’s all part of demonstrating Kujichagulia, or self-determination, one of the seven principles associated with Kwanzaa celebrations.
One recent example of how Chick has reversed the oft-cited achievement gap between white and black students: On the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) fourth-grade math test in 2005, 48 percent of Chick students scored at the proficient or advanced level. Statewide, only 24 percent of black students and 36 percent of white students scored that high.
In 1995, the judge overseeing the desegregation case, impressed by Chick’s success, agreed with a proposal to implement the African model at another elementary school, Sanford B. Ladd. Ladd went on to be recognized as one of the most improved schools in the state.
A middle school also took on the African theme several years ago, but its leadership has been in flux and it hasn’t made strong achievement gains. Bullard says he believes those changes will come on the coattails of improvements in teaching and student behavior, which are under way. All three schools follow state and district curriculum standards.