National News

Black youth thrive under charter school curriculum

By Charlene Muhammad
Staff Writer | Last updated: Sep 26, 2006 - 4:15:00 PM

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Culture and Language Academy of Success elementary students get re-acquainted before Morning Affirmation, which includes a review of the school's discipline program based on the virtues of the Kemetic Ma'at: Truth, Justice, Righteousness, Order, Balance, Reciprocity and Propriety. Photos: Charlene Muhammad
We intend to help these young people improve their quality of life first, and ultimately improve the quality of lives of those in their community.
-Stan Muhammad
Venice 2K /Helper Leadership Program


LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) - It has been just over 10 years since the charter school movement forged into existence with much anticipation and hope, matched by just as much skepticism and opposition. But the intended goal of a superior, not necessarily equal, education that boosts the learning development of primarily Black and underserved children in South L.A. communities is being achieved by two schools in areas where youth are “predetermined” to fail at more than their education.

The Culture and Language Academy of Success (CLAS), located in Inglewood with a current enrollment of 300, saw a modest beginning three years ago with about 130 students, a few student advocates or teachers, and an arsenal of dedication, according to Dr. Sharroky Hollie, CLAS Chief Instructional Advocate.

As a result, for the 2003/2004 rating, CLAS scribes scored 783 (the second of the top three Best South L.A. schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) on the Academic Performance Index (API), 735 for 2004-2005, and 773 for 2005-2006.

According to Dr. Hollie, CLAS’ success is due to its unique focus on the Black student and in closing the achievement gap through culturally and linguistically responsive teaching.

“Our first teaching is the validation and affirmation of home culture and language as a lens to the standards,” Dr. Hollie explained. “So we focus on building the children’s competency and competence around who they are as Africans in America, as a bridge to success in mainstream.”

Several miles away on the Crenshaw Blvd. strip at the View Park Preparatory (VPP) Accelerated Charter School, the top 2004 Best South L.A. school in the school district, students scored 813 at the elementary level, 781 at the middle school and 725 at the high school.

Middle school principal Brian Taylor informed that an important key to its success is classroom size and building small schools with no more than 25 children per classroom. Its current total enrollment is approximately 275 children.

Other factors include dedicated teachers who believe in Black students, and that every one of them has gifts; and an accelerated curriculum that teaches children one grade level ahead and to the skew of the top five in the classroom.

“We have been fortunate to have a positive impact on African American young lads whom we believe strongly are able to be great leaders in our community. It begins with getting them a solid education where we challenge them to be great thinkers, have great discussions and back up their claims by having authoritarian figures back up their points,” he added.

The VPP schools developed three years after the implementation of a summer camp and an after-school program designed to stress academics and enrichment programs in art, music and computers.

This year, the high school is incorporating a life skills and leadership program designed to help Black male and female students become leaders at a very young age by taking responsibility for their own determination, according to Stan Muhammad, Venice 2K/Helper Leadership Program administrator.

“The program deals with several life management skills components: attitude, self-esteem, decision-making processes, goal setting and active participation in targeted success,” he said, “View Park Prep deals with Black youth who are doing pretty well, and this curriculum is an add-on to that success, building on the importance of education.”

According to Mr. Muhammad, the pilot program, facilitated by Maurice Muhammad and Alfie Jones who interact with four periods of approximately 25 students per class, is based on self-improvement in community development.

“We intend to help these young people improve their quality of life first, and ultimately improve the quality of lives of those in their community. This is not a gang intervention program, because these students, though they may be affected, are not affiliated with gang culture,” Mr. Muhammad continued.

Along with Dr. Hollie, Attorney Janis Bucknor, CLAS Chief Educational Advocate, and Anthony Jackson, CLAS Chief Student Advocate, combined their years of educational experience to enhance the learning process for Black students, all within their own communities and absent the private school price tag. Briefly, he detailed why and how.

Dr. Sharokky Hollie (SH): We’re just committed to making a change. We all are former public school system products and realized in our own way that this wasn’t working for our kids and we needed to do something different. Our curriculum is not textbook-driven. It’s strategies-driven. We do our core pieces—language and literacy. Our emphasis and focus is on students being at grade level or above in language arts and reading, and we do that by focusing on literature that is responsive to the children and teaching standards at the same time.

We feel that since literacy is the gatekeeper to success in other areas, that’s the area of focus literary events, poetry slams, morning reports and lots of writing. For math, we use a conceptually-based program called “Everyday based mathematics” to get them to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Final Call (FC): What do you think of the prevailing concern that charter and independent schools undercut the public school system and negatively impact education for the masses of our youth?

SH: I think that it’s a scapegoat for a failing system. Charter schools are really, particularly in our area, just a star in the big sky. I don’t think they’re having the influence as people say in response to what’s going on in the public school. In all fairness, I don’t think that we should be comparing charter schools to traditional public schools, no different than we compare private schools to public schools. We should be comparing charter schools to charter schools and the charter schools that are being successful are underreported.

Politically, charter has become a bad word now. One of the reasons is because you had some bad apples, and that left sort of a bad taste in peoples’ mouths, but there were only a few. Second, the teachers’ unions have not been supportive of charter schools. They’re connected to politicians. And a third is that charter schools have been used by the Bush administration to go towards the voucher movement.

FC: To what else do you attribute CLAS’ thriving academics and enrollment?

SH: Our use of the technology is a key feature: the one-to-one laptop ratio, each child having their own. We’re pushing the envelope around what it means to learn in the 21st Century. We managed to look at what it would take fiscally to buy a textbook in each content area, which is about $300-$400 per child, and realized that Apple was offering new computers for $600, which was not really that much a stretch of long-term investment. Instead of investing in textbooks, we invested in computers and used technology for the same learning.

Each Wednesday, CLAS’ student advocates, or teachers, focus on continued education, while students participate in cultural enrichment curriculums consisting of reading, art, dance, martial arts and writing, including publishing its quarterly Scribes newspaper.

FC: Thank you.