Thursday, July 26, 2007
(07-26) 15:30 PDT -- Principal Ben Chavis of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland - who has shocked parents not only by his use of threats and humiliation in teaching, but by his success at sending inner-city test scores sky high -- has stepped down after seven years.
The departure follows a dust-up with a Mills College group visiting the autonomous public school that prompted new scrutiny of Chavis by the Oakland Unified School District.
Chavis said he was leaving anyway. He informed the school's governing board last March 15, according to minutes of the meeting. That was the day of the Mills College unpleasantness.
"I agreed to stay two years, and I stayed seven," he said, adding that he's returning to his home in Arizona, where he has a real estate business and where his children and grandchildren live.
Praise for Chavis and his ethnically mixed school of low-income pupils has come from test-score watchers in Oakland and Sacramento.
When he took over the four-year-old charter school at 3637 Magee Avenue in 2000, it had 34 middle-school students and was sinking fast. The school had no viable test scores and couldn't retain students.
By 2002, the school had tripled its enrollment, and test scores were climbing.
By 2006, more than 150 low-income students -- mainly Asian Americans, Latinos and African Americans -- were among the top-scorers in the state on the California Standards Test.
Last September, Chavis expanded Amerian Indian to include high school. The scores of those students are not yet posted.
Meanwhile, complaints about Chavis' style have also percolated for years, largely overlooked and tolerated because the school delivered such outstanding scores.
"I can't deal with an administration that is a dictatorship," Monica Peoples-Brown told The Chronicle in 2005 after withdrawing her sixth-grade son from the school.
The boy had admitted to calling another child a derogatory name, so Chavis pinned a note to his shirt: "I'm an (expletive)."
"My child was traumatized," Peoples-Brown said.
Lately, the complaints have escalated.
In March, a group from Mills College in Oakland asked to visit the school.
"I had an appointment with the professor, who disagreed with my philosophy," Chavis said.
One of the graduate students joining the professor arrived late, bringing coffee.
"I told him he's a dumbass idiot," Chavis recalled. "An embarrassment to minorities. That's what I said. He came late. White people are on time. What does he think, there's black time? Mexican time? Indian time?
"The clock is white."
Chavis said he saw no reason to hold his guests to a different standard than he requires of his own students.
"If the kids come one second late, they stay an hour after school," he explained.
After learning of that incident and others, education officials from the Oakland Unified School District pressured the charter school's governing board to rein Chavis in. School districts have no direct authority over day-to-day operations at autonomous public charter schools, but can shut them down.
In response to the district's request, the charter school's board fined Chavis $700.
But Kirsten Vital, accountability chief for the Oakland school district, said the response was unlikely to correct the problem. In a July 9 letter to the school's governing board, Vital said she had visited the school in June and observed incidents bordering on educational malpractice, and that came close to child endangerment.
These included an interview with a girl who said she was forced to clean the boys' bathroom as punishment for misbehaving; Chavis' "repeated use of the words 'whities' and 'darkies' in the presence of students"; and Chavis' reference to a former employee as a "white b -- -," also in front of students.
Vital told the board to provide a written explanation by Tuesday of how it will prevent such incidents in the future, and how it would handle complaints.
The minutes of the March 15 board meeting say that Chavis will work part-time at American Indian during the 2007-2008 school year. But Chavis said he will not.
"They don't need me," he said. "I'm not going to be there if I can help it."
E-mail Nanette Asimov at firstname.lastname@example.org.