I have been ranking the most challenging schools in the country and this region for 15 years. Rarely have I encountered anything like the American Indian Public Charter High School of Oakland, Calif., the No. 1 school on my 2013 list. It has risen to the top just as its city school board is trying to shut it down.
I visited the high school and its two American Indian charter middle schools two months ago. They hold classes in offices downtown and in a run-down residential part of the city, where they set an extraordinary standard of achievement.
The students enroll in Advanced Placement courses in the ninth grade and eventually take more of those college-level classes and exams per student than any high school in the Washington area. In their white shirts and dark slacks and skirts, the 243 students bustle around their little campus. Eighty-one percent of them are from low-income families, but their AP test-passing rate of 41 percent is higher than any D.C. school except Wilson and the School Without Walls, which have mostly middle-class students.
The three Oakland charter schools are in trouble because Ben Chavis, the unorthodox educator responsible for their success, has been charged by the school district with misappropriating public funds. Chavis denies doing anything wrong. He left the school in late 2011 to tend his cattle farm in North Carolina, leaving parents and new school leaders — with their own internal disputes — to fight for survival. The city school board voted last month to withdraw the schools’ charter by a narrow 4 to 3 margin, but the county or state school board could overrule that decision.
The Oakland district alleges that Chavis, who rented property to the schools, “improperly received $3.8 million in public funding” that “violated conflict of interest laws.” The charges are worthy of adjudication, but is a shutdown the best option? The schools have been at or near the top on state test results. The school district’s report says only good things about their students’ academic achievements. Having one of the nation’s worst school systems kill off three of the nation’s best schools makes little sense.
Yet it could happen in many places, maybe even the District. In their approach to learning, the American Indian schools remind me of the BASIS schools, a similarly AP-focused charter school network that now has 400 students in a six-story red brick building on Eighth Street NW. The staff of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, perhaps as uncomfortable with such heavy demands on kids as I suspect Oakland officials have been, recommended against giving BASIS D.C. a charter, but the board overruled them.
Do such schools have a future? BASIS Tucson North was at the top of last year’s Post list, a measure of participation in college-level tests such as AP and International Baccalaureate. BASIS Scottsdale was No. 5. Both now have such high SAT scores they are going on my Public Elites list, where I put schools, such as Thomas Jefferson or Bronx Science, that are too selective to be usefully assessed by AP or IB participation.
Oakland should sue Chavis if it has a case, but it should also celebrate the American Indian schools and encourage their growth. They were named in honor of Native Americans but have few such students. The enrollment is mostly Asian, with significant numbers of Hispanics and blacks, all of them wanting better schools.
Immigrant impatience has great power. Olga Block grew up in what is now the Czech Republic and wanted her children’s schools to be better than what she found in Arizona. So she and her economist husband, Michael Block, started BASIS. He was in the District last week, watching BASIS teachers working hard to raise students’ skills, particularly in math.
There are more than 1,900 schools on the America’s Most Challenging High Schools list, the top 9 percent nationally. Many have struggled. No. 2 and No. 3 on the new list, the Science and Engineering Magnet and Talented and Gifted schools, both in Dallas, were threatened by staff cuts.
Most of those at the top of the list are small, both the public schools and our sampling of private schools. The top two schools on the local list are both private: Saint Anselm's Abbey and Washington International. The two highest-ranking local public schools are the Montgomery County magnet Poolesville and the Arlington County magnet H-B Woodlawn.
They, too, are relatively small, like BASIS and American Indian. But they have big ambitions. We need more of that, not less.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.