Why you should care

The education most Americans get is Eurocentric, but an alternative is now struggling to attract students.

Back in the summer of 1955, young Emmett Till was visiting family in Money, Mississippi. One day he whistled at a white woman. A few nights later, two men beat him, gouged an eye out and shot him in the head. They tied him by the neck to a heavy cotton gin and dumped his body in a river.

Never heard this story? It was a turning point in the American civil rights movement — and was essentially forgotten for decades. Over at Meadows-Livingstone, a tiny private school in San Francisco’s Mission District, students know all about it. The curriculum there is decidedly Afrocentric, covering art, music, history and more from the perspective of the African-American community. But these days, the future of Meadows-Livingstone and dozens of Afrocentric schools like it is a question mark.

There are only 20 kids enrolled at Meadows-Livingstone, down a third from nearly 30 students a decade ago, and it’s getting harder and harder to fill the one-room schoolhouse. Indeed, since the elementary school opened its doors in 1979, San Francisco has grown vastly wealthier — and more white — and the school’s founder, Gail Meadows, has had to reach farther afield to places like Oakland and San Mateo to attract students.

Meadows-Livingstone is just one of dozens of institutions in the country trying not only to mitigate the lower test scores and higher dropout rates that afflict minority students — 9 percent of Black students drop out of school before college, compared to just 5 percent of white students — but also to create an alternative for families seeking something other than what’s on offer from the current Eurocentric public education system. Too many traditional schools, according to advocates of Afrocentric curricula, gloss over the vital role people of color have played throughout history while glorifying white innovation and struggle. Yet the movement has recently hit roadblocks — with at least four Afrocentric charter schools ordered to close in the past two years, from West Palm Beach to Detroit, and still more put on watch lists after posting disappointing academic results.

We highlight African-Americans, we talk about slavery — and that’s important.

William Anderson, principal at Africentric Early College in Columbus, Ohio

Aside from academic underperformance, increasing numbers of these schools have started losing their charters due to financial mismanagement or too many years battling money-related challenges. Some private schools, meanwhile, are now finding that their greatest challenge is simply filling their classrooms. Part of the problem is tied to fundraising, as these schools serve underprivileged communities, and another part, evidenced by Meadows-Livingstone, is discovering over time that the cities in which they launched have priced out the disadvantaged families they set out to help. Not to mention that there’s ever-mounting competition for high-performing minority students. “A lot of private schools that aren’t necessarily progressive want those kids,” says Amy Binder, author of Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools.

With each potential closure, the threat is not only the loss of an individual school. What also could be at risk is the Afrocentric education movement itself, a way of emphasizing the contributions of African culture to Western civilization that has evolved into a philosophical movement, which prioritizes community and responsibility over single-minded academic performance. “We highlight African-Americans, we talk about slavery — and that’s important,” says William Anderson, principal at Africentric Early College in Columbus, Ohio. But, he adds, educators like him also make a lasting impact on students by pressing them to think about why they do certain things. A shared focus on community is key, many educators maintain, and making each child feel responsible not only for their own academic achievement, but also for the greater educational microcosm they inhabit, is one way Afrocentric schools set themselves apart. At Africentric Early College, for instance, Anderson asks misbehaving students to think about the wider impact of their actions, rather than doling out traditional punishments.

The tide of Afrocentric schools rose along with the charter school movement, and hundreds opened over the past two decades. And while they’ve encountered obstacles of late, the news is not entirely bleak. Toronto opened its first Afrocentric high school program in 2013, and its 20 or so students are reportedly thriving — to such a degree that the province of Ontario has proposed opening a school with a First Nations-centered curriculum. Meanwhile in the U.S., Columbus’ Africentric Early College has broken ground on a new $39.3 million campus, complete with a 2,000-seat football stadium that will host the home team: the Nubians.

Tempering these successes are detractors who argue that the Afrocentric movement is unnecessary — or worse, detrimental to students who are already challenged, because it means they learn a different history than what’s taught in traditional schools. They also point out that while Afrocentric schools go to great lengths to stress inclusion — white children are welcome to attend Afrocentric schools, just as many African-American children attend Eurocentric schools — more often than not they end up being populated almost exclusively by Black students, when studies have shown that minority students perform better academically in desegregated environments.

The initial force behind crafting and implementing Afrocentric curricula was the fact that kids weren’t succeeding in traditional schools, says Binder, and educators wanted kids to learn in environments where they felt comfortable. From the start, the mission was dogged by cries of revisionism, to which Meadows responds: “African-Americans built this country.” And if, as she says, some people feel African-Americans are rising up as these schools have emerged over the years, then she doesn’t dispute the claim. “We are,” says Meadows. “But because of our history, it frightens them.”

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