No-Nonsense Teaching in CA School

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OAKLAND, Calif. - There's only one school in Oakland that both former President George Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have chosen to highlight for its excellence.

Yet, it used to be one of the city's worst failures. Here's more on the school and the wildly controversial principal who took the school from "worst to first."

The American Indian Public Charter School had some of the worst grades in Oakland and declining enrollment. Years later, parents are clamoring to get their kids in there, and it's the best scoring middle school in Oakland.

Click play to see the report and hear from Dr. Ben Chavis on how he is spreading the model used at this school to impact others around the country.

So what happened? 
 
Principal Benjamin Chavis is what happened - a no-nonsense American Indian with some radical ideas about education.

"I'm not into multiculturalism, self-esteem, liberal education," said Chavis. "I'm the opposite. I'm into structure, discipline, respect and academics. And that's something they hadn't had."

It's like what you'd expect if the Marine Corps ran your local middle school. The kids serve as the janitorial staff - coming to school early to clean up. Every day it's the kids who turn the gym into the lunchroom.

And that same gym is the site of rigorous 45-minute workouts that leave no room for coddling the weak. These same students do not have computers, arts classes, or music classes.

"We're teaching them back-to-basics," Chavis said. 

That's what attracted 6th grade teacher Janet Shewmon to the school.

"We don't do a lot of fluff education. We don't do self-esteem classes. We don't do health. We don't do recess.anything like that. It's just really basic education," Shewmon said.

And yet the students seem jazzed and upbeat. And they're excelling. The school's recognized as one of the 200 best in the nation.

"We're the first blue ribbon public school in Oakland, California in the 25-year history of the Blue Ribbon award," Chavis said. "Had the highest math scores, highest language arts scores."

Eighth grader Armante Washington said, "Before I came here, I got D's and F's. Now I'm getting A's and B's."

What's most controversial about this principal, though, is his tough take on discipline.

Chavis explained, "Traditionally, in tribal society, if you were lazy or a loser or didn't do your job, you got embarrassed. There were consequences. But here in the Bay Area where it's liberal touchy-feely, there are no consequences: 'Oh, that's part of their culture.' There are only excuses here."

But not at Chavis' school.

"If you're going to be lazy, if you're not going to do your homework, I'm going to embarrass you in front of the other students," Chavis said. "You're going to get detention. You're going to be up on cleanup duty."

"He tries to scare you.he does," said Amanda Haick, a 9th grader. "He wants you to succeed. That's his main goal."

Chavis said, "We're going to call up your aunts and uncles and embarrass you. We're not going to call your mom and dad. I'm going to call your grandparents."

"He'll take you home to his house and you'll clean his yard," Haick said.

Mess up or be lazy and you could well end up losing your chair.

"You'll be sitting on a floor. Because a chair is for workers," Chavis said. 

Yakub Bey, a seventh grader, said, "It gets you ready for the real world. Often in life, it won't always be fair. And so this is a great example of that."

But Chavis is getting flak from some outsiders.

Elementary school teacher Mary Loeser objects to Chavis' methods.

She sent one of her brightest, most confident graduates on to Chavis' middle school. But when she next saw him, he was shaken, nervous, and depressed.

According to Loeser, the student said, "They're really mean there." And he said, 'They humiliate you.'"

Patricia Arriaga says she suffered a verbal tongue-lashing from Chavis when she asked him if her son could return to a former teacher.

Arriaga pulled her son out of the school after Chavis, she said, "just started swearing at me, telling me I was a racist, that I didn't like the new teacher because he was black."

Loeser said, "She said he brought her to tears."

"I thought 'If he does this to me, what is he doing to the kids?" Arriaga said.

Another episode that upset Arriaga and Loeser is when Chavis shaved a student's head.

Chavis says he did it because the boy had previously agreed to the punishment.

"He got caught stealing," Chavis explained. "I brought him in front of the whole school and I said, 'He's going home with me tonight and I'm going to cut off all his hair.' And that's what I did."

Chavis insists that, for the few students driven away, there are hundreds of others thriving.

"Kids here know that I will embarrass them and I will punish them," he said. "And what people don't realize -- that's what kids want. They like it when you embarrass a fool."

"You know the teachers are really watching you," Bey said, "so you don't try to do anything slick."

Chavis uses rewards just as much as punishments. He pays $6,500 a year more to his teachers than other Oakland schools do to theirs.

Chavis doles out up to $100 per student if they have perfect attendance for the whole year.

"They get paid for it. It's almost like their job," said Shewmon.

Students can get instant cash rewards if they can impromptu recite the school credo.

All this comes out of the principal's own pocket, because he's already made his forture from real estate holdings,so he's able to lavish his $30,000 annual principal's salary on the students and teachers.

He even paid to have 10 billboards put up around Oakland to celebrate a whole class that had perfect attendance.

But he and the teachers believe most of all that it's their conservative back-to-basics philosophy that's sending their students' performance and scores soaring.

"They have high self-esteem now," Chavis said. 

So maybe if schools want success like this school has, the wave of the future is going to be to go back to the old-fashioned ways.

*Originally aired May 26, 2007 

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Paul Strand

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As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.