Sometimes success is not enough. Students at the American Indian Model Schools have consistently outperformed most of their peers nationwide. But on Sunday night parents and board members were groping for a way to keep the schools’ doors open.

The Oakland school board voted on March 20 to revoke the schools’ charter at the end of the year because of financial improprieties. At an emergency meeting Sunday night, parents, teachers and administrators tried to figure out how they could effectively appeal the decision.

American Indian Model Schools founder Ben Chavis discussed his philosophy in an excerpt from the documentary “Flunked:”


Everyone acknowledges that the three schools (one elementary and middle, one middle and one high school) have gotten impressive results.  For example, in the 2011-2012 school year, 100 percent of the high school’s 11th-graders scored “proficient/advanced” on one of the math sections of the California Standards Test. By comparison, only 39 percent of Oakland Unified School District students reached that level.

So many students at AIMS take advanced placement and International Baccalaureate tests that the Washington Post has rated the high school the most challenging school in the country for 2013.

Yet 95 percent of the students at the schools come from families with so little income that they qualify for free or subsidized lunches.

What got the schools into trouble are the dealings of  AIMS’ controversial founder, the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

A 2012 state audit found several instances of financial impropriety in the organization, including $3.8 million in payments to founder and former director Ben Chavis and his wife through real estate deals, consulting agreements and other services, raising ethical questions and conflict-of-interest concerns.

Chavis, for example, leases space in Chinatown to one of the schools, charging $700,000 more per year than district space would cost.

While Chavis no longer directs the schools, he still acts as landlord, the Chronicle reported.

The Oakland Tribune takes up the story from there:

On Sunday, the AIMS board had proposed the resignation of board members Nedir Bey and Jean Martinez, blamed for costing the institution its charter by holding up key reforms demanded by OUSD.

Those demands included hiring a consultant to put the institution’s finances in order and severing the relationship of ousted AIMS director Ben Chavis and his wife, Marsha Amador, accused of improperly channeling millions of dollars to themselves.

That meeting followed one on Friday, the Tribune reported, in which parents and educators demanded the resignation as well of two other board members,  Laura Armstrong and Jordan Locklear. Instead, the board fired interim director Sylvester Hodges and Jennifer Avelino, head administrator at one of the schools, AIPCS II, the newspaper said.

The meeting Sunday ended without resolution because so many board members left that the board couldn’t act. The schools faces a deadline of April 18 to appeal the revocation of the charter, said the Tribune.

Appeals could go to the Alameda County Board of Education and the state Board of Education, according to the Chronicle.

How have the schools gotten such impressive results in the midst of such controversy?

The schools’ own website credits a back-to-basics curriculum that emphasizes hard work and discipline and aims squarely at the curriculum covered by standardized tests.

The schools offer no computers, music or arts, though some elements of art are incorporated into programs, the website says. For physical education, there is only running and stretching.

Cash rewards are given to students and staff for “hard work, academic performance, and reinforcing the school’s mission statement and credo. ”

The formula has worked regardless of the students’ ethnicity. Originally founded to serve American Indians, the schools now have a student body in which the largest group is Asian. The ethnic breakdown varies from among the three schools.

At the high school, 42 percent are Asian,  32 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 11 percent American Indian, according to GreatSchools. All these groups scored highly on standardized tests.

There are about 400 students total at the three campuses, the website says.

High-Performing American Indian Charter Schools Struggle for Survival 16 April,2013Laird Harrison

  • Preston Visser

    Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. If Chavis broke the law, then he should go, but for crying out loud, don’t shut down the school or make them change too much. I think OUSD has some more important things to worry about if a leader could do so well with so little and still have some left over for personal gain.

  • former teacher

    I used to be a teacher at Oakland Charter Academy, a sister school of American Indian. When I was being interviewed for the job, I was shown American Indian. One teacher there verbally abused a female student with such fury that I was floored, and I had grown up in a tough school in the Midwest which had corporal punishment. American Indian reminded me of my basic training at Fort Benning at its worst.

  • RheeAliTee

    Public Education has been under attack since many pubic schools throughout the country rose to the challenge and have proven that, even including scores from special ed and students new to the country, they could outscore private schools. Very likely the move to close them is motivated by the fact that the Board and their friends have seen a decline in how many of their students from College Prep are attending top colleges and universities compared to an increase of those who attend American Indian Charter–purely political–

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