Saturday, July 28, 2007

Charter's notorious chief quits

Mild-mannered successor at Oakland school may ease concerns about discipline, racism

By Katy Murphy, STAFF WRITER

Inside Bay AreaArticle Last Updated:07/27/2007 04:46:04 AM PDT

OAKLAND — Visitors to the American Indian Public Charter School will no longer need to be forewarned about its notoriously foul-mouthed and sometimes incendiary director.

Ben Chavis has retired and moved to Arizona after seven years at the high-performing school in the Laurel District. He named a former eighth-grade teacher to take his place.

Lest it be assumed that Chavis was pushed out by a school district inquiry into complaints about his behavior, he explains his retirement was in the works for over a year. Board meeting minutes in March, before the district's investigation, do indeed document his intent.

"Do you think I'm the type to run from these jokers?" Chavis asked. "I love a good fight."

The appointment of a new director, the young and comparably mild-mannered Isaac Berniker, is expected to ease some growing concerns about Chavis' disciplinary policies and use of racial stereotypes to motivate his mostly nonwhite students.

Sabrina Zirkel, a Mills College education professor stunned by Chavis's behavior when she and a group of graduate students visited in March, said she was optimistic about the news.

"I'm hopeful for a change at this school — a change in tone," she said.

Zirkel watched Chavis yell racist insults at an African-American graduate student who arrived 15 minutes late, the first of several incidents documented by the group. Noting that the Oakland school district had begun pressuring the charter school's board to respond more effectively to such complaints, she added, "I hope that his retirement doesn't derail that process."

Kirsten Vital, the school district's chief of community accountability, left the charter school with similar impressions after a visit with two other school officials in June.

In a letter to the governing board, she described instances of "inappropriate and offensive" behavior, including Chavis' use of the words "darkies" and "whities" in front of students. (Chavis, an American Indian, says he thinks those are appropriate terms. He says one of the students' slogans is "Darkies: smart and proud of it.")

"Although we did not observe anything during our visit which would warrant contacting Child Protective Services, we will be closely monitoring the school in the future to ensure that these lines are not crossed," Vital wrote.

Vital's letter asks for the board to explain how it "is monitoring Dr. Chavis' behavior," which should prove a considerably easier task if Chavis spends most of his time out of state.

Chavis' colleague, Oakland Charter Academy Director Jorge Lopez, says the school probably will receive less attention now that its colorful director is gone. But he said he expects American Indian to keep thriving academically under new leadership.

It's not just Chavis' persona that has put the school on the map. The school's test scores and academic model also have received national attention. Most of American Indian's students come from low-income families, and on the 2006 state tests they scored roughly the same as their more affluent peers in Piedmont.

American Indian was honored this year as a National Blue Ribbon School, one of the top 300 public or private schools in the nation. It was the first public school in Oakland to receive that distinction. As a result, some local educators have speculated that Chavis merely "creams" the most promising students from local elementary schools or that he cheats — charges he calls "racist."

"You know how we cheat?" he likes to ask. "Work."

A new middle school opens this year at 171 12th St. in downtown Oakland, alongside a second Oakland Charter Academy. Lopez will oversee both campuses.

Lopez says he is confident the school's model — keeping middle school and high school students with the same classmates and the same teacher for most of the day and focusing on fundamental academic skills — will be effectively carried out with Berniker in charge.

"Isaac is the toughest teacher that Ben has had in a while," Lopez said. "He's not going to go around calling people crazy a— liberal or bulls—- darkies, but the fundamental program isn't going to fall."

E-mail Katy Murphy at Read her Oakland schools blog at

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