Posted on August 23, 2011

New City School Blends Learning with African Cultural Flavor

Elisa Crouch, STL Today, August 21, 2011

On the first day of school, third-graders in Angela Robinson’s class sat cross-legged on the floor and recited the African creed taped to the chalkboard.

They would accept their duties and responsibilities, respect themselves and others, they stated.


Pamoja Preparatory Academy @ Cole opened Monday as an African-centered school–a place where reading, math, and science are taught alongside African values, customs and culture. Among those values are self-control, respect toward elders and giving back to community.

The school is the first with an African focus in the St. Louis public school system, a district where about 80 percent of the students are black. {snip}


But others contend that the African-centered approach is too narrowly focused on one racial group.

“I have never had a high regard for any form of ethnic, racial or religious-themed schools,” said Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian and author at New York University. “The purpose of public education is to develop American citizens who are prepared to make their way in the world and to collaborate with others to improve our democracy.”

Earlier this year, a few people raised similar concerns at public meetings. They also questioned why the district was opening two schools where girls and boys now attend classes separately–another growing trend in urban education.


Pamoja–Swahili for “together”–is modeled after similar programs in Kansas City, Detroit and Los Angeles, where African-centered schools have been popular and are growing.


Since the adoption of No Child Left Behind, states and school districts have been under increasing pressure to close the achievement gap between black and white students. {snip}

“We say that gap is not an intelligence gap,” said Kevin Bullard, executive director of the Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus in Kansas City, where about 1,200 students in preschool through 12th grade are enrolled in that district’s African-centered program. “Often it’s a teacher gap, in terms of teachers being able to address the learning needs of students within those environments.”


Students will learn about the contributions that Africans and African-Americans have made in the subject areas they are learning about, from math to science to music to literature.


“We want children to learn all that they can to be great and be competitive in this world,” said Sean Nichols, principal at the school. “We also want them to understand there are contributions by Africans and African Americans, and that the world is connected.”

Students will learn that black history began long before slavery–and that slavery in the United States was just a sliver of the African experience.


“It’s not about race,” Nichols added. “It’s about culture.”


Parent Mika Williams said she was unaware that Cole Elementary had transformed into Pamoja until Monday morning, when she walked her fourth-grade son and sixth-grade daughter into the school. She is excited about the change.

“It gives them a chance to see another culture and where they came from,” she said.