This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
By many indicators, Imhotep Institute Charter High School is one of Philadelphia’s most successful high schools.
Imhotep sends more of its graduates – 66 percent – to college than any other charter school in the city.
And last year, the school’s 525 students, 99 percent of them African American and 87 percent low income, had proficiency rates above 70 percent in reading and math.
Just as importantly, says 10th grader Khaliah Arrington, Imhotep’s African-centered approach creates a nurturing atmosphere that more traditional schools can’t match.
“They teach you like your family teaches you,” says Arrington.
“At other schools, you might get good academics, but when you go to Imhotep, you learn about yourself.”
With the School District of Philadelphia actively shopping for successful charter operators to manage its lowest-performing schools – many of which are almost entirely African-American – Imhotep might seem a natural fit.
But during the second year of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative, neither Imhotep nor any of Philadelphia’s six other African-centered school operators will be in the mix to manage schools.
A national issue
The dynamic is not unique to Philadelphia.
There are no African-centered school operators in the country participating in the current wave of school turnarounds, says Taki Raton, an adjunct professor of education at Springfield College in Milwaukee and the founder and former principal of the African-centered Blyden Delaney Academy there.
“Ironically, people do not turn to us to do this work,” Raton says.
That’s partially because African-centered operators as a group lack the capacity to make sure they have a seat at the table when large reforms like school turnaround are rolled out, he says.
Many are also reluctant to make the necessary compromises in order to participate in such mainstream reform efforts.
Imhotep founder and CEO Christine Wiggins, for example, says she was approached by Philadelphia School District officials about applying to be a Renaissance provider, but decided against it.
“I don’t want to play the game,” Wiggins says.
Wiggins wants to grow Imhotep, but her preference would be to expand her existing school to accommodate a 500-family waiting list.
That strategy is born in part from deep skepticism of the District’s support for the African-centered approach.
Wiggins, who worked for the District for over two decades before opening her school, says flatly that the District “was not going to approve any [Renaissance applicant] who was culturally relevant.”
A different approach
It’s true that the four Renaissance providers who took over Philadelphia schools last fall employ a set of common practices that align closely with the reforms currently favored by the Obama Administration.
While distinct, each emphasizes creating an “achievement-focused” school culture and remediating basic skills, and each relies heavily on student performance data to guide instruction. Children’s race and culture, to the extent that they are addressed at all, are primarily viewed as separate from the primary business of teaching reading and arithmetic.
Imhotep, on the other hand, uses a student-centered approach to give students a “total immersion in their culture,” says Wiggins.
“We tell the whole story, which says that all humankind started on the continent of Africa, and we find out what’s important to [students] and use that love to stimulate [their] want for learning.”
The school uniform at Imhotep is black pants and a dashiki, and the halls are lined with flags of African nations. Lessons in all subjects are infused with African history, and all students take part in a “rites of passage” process focused on formally preparing them for adulthood.
“Last year, we were blindfolded [as part of an exercise], showing us how it was on the slave ships,” said 10th grader Arrington of the rites of passage process. “Each year it gets more intense.”
Students are prepared not just for standardized tests or even college, say school leaders, but to become “intellectual warriors” working for the “redemption of African people.”
That kind of focus on creating a positive racial identity can make a big difference for Black children, says Howard Stevenson, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“If you have a school that is teaching race consciousness, it can help [students] emotionally and academically,” Stevenson says.
“Kids develop coping strategies, and they don’t feel like they have to overreact – or underreact – to stressful situations.”
Rallying the operators
But while there are highly regarded African-centered schools in many cities across the country, including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Kansas City, there has not yet been any national research systematically assessing the model’s effectiveness.
In fact, there is no general agreement on the number of African-centered schools currently operating, in part because there are no broadly accepted criteria for what constitutes “true” African-centeredness.
Those realities point to a deeper cause of African-centered schools’ marginalization in wider school reform efforts, says Amefika Geuka, co-founder of the Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba Charter School in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“It’s been extremely difficult to get [African-centered] charter operators to come together,” Geuka says. “We are not taking care of the business of organizing ourselves.”
Last year, at age 69, Geuka walked 1,069 miles from West Palm Beach to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the need for African-centered education for Black children, but the impact of his effort was limited.
“You have Black folks who say they want a better education for their children, but they can’t define what they mean by that,” says Geuka, explaining the paucity of Black parents demanding African-centered education.
African-centered school operators have struggled to build collective capacity, he adds, partly because of old ideological debates and partly because of the demands of running their schools.
The experience of Philadelphia’s largest Black-run charter operator, Universal Companies, highlights this dynamic.
Universal, which operates three charters, including two Renaissance turnarounds, would like to be more African-centered, said President and CEO Rahim Islam.
But the organization’s founders felt that adopting such an approach early on would have compromised their ability to grow.
“We made a strategic organizational decision early on that we had to crawl before we could walk,” said Islam. “The first thing we had to do was build the capacity to open a school. We couldn’t do both.”
Regardless of the challenges, says Geuka, African-centered operators are “showing no vision whatsoever.”
“It’s going to be as lucrative to have a charter to operate a public school as it is to have a franchise to operate a McDonald’s. We need to have schools in order to make sure we are in a position to get our children’s proportionate share of the resources.”
With the rapid growth of large charter management organizations capable of running numerous schools across multiple cities and states, he adds, that need is ever more urgent.
The fast-growing network of so-called “No Excuses” charter schools, for example, includes several organizations – the majority of which are headed by Whites – that have positioned themselves to capitalize on the seismic shifts underway in American public education.
KIPP, for example, is the best-established “No Excuses” provider, already operating 99 schools in 20 states serving 27,000 students – 95 percent of them African-American or Latino.
Furthermore, major philanthropic groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continue to support the expansion of many “No Excuses” operators, and independent capacity-building organizations like the New Schools Venture Fund support the replication and dissemination of their models. Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia is a local charter operator that has benefited from that support.
“I have no competition with a KIPP or a Mastery, because I don’t have the money to have a competition with them,” says Wiggins.
“We’re all just trying to fight for our lives.”
A shorter version of this piece appeared in the print edition of the Notebook.