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American Indian Model Schools
High School students at the American Indian Model Schools work in small classrooms at desks piled high with Advanced Placement textbooks. Credit: Kyle Spencer

OAKLAND, Calif. — This winter, shortly after landing a job as superintendent of the American Indian Model Schools (AIMS), one of California’s highest performing — and most controversial — charter chains, Maya Woods-Cadiz got into what she calls “my study-mode.”

She pored over how-to books, sat through countless instructional videos, and feverishly jotted down ideas in her journal, trying to figure out what part of contentious former leader Ben Chavis’ rigorous program to preserve and what to jettison. She also read Crazy Like a Fox, the 304-page book Chavis co-authored, which outlines both the academic strategies that helped the network win accolades from around the country and the draconian disciplinary practices that earned it the enmity of everyone from school district leaders to national charter school opponents.

“We didn’t have the successes we had by accident,” said Woods-Cadiz one afternoon this winter, speaking from the network’s modest headquarters, an aging office building in downtown Oakland. “So, I’m really into not changing our model.”

AIMS, with its harsh discipline and top-notch academics, has long been considered the unique creation of Ben Chavis, a Lumbee Indian educator with a big personality and an acerbic tongue. But with Chavis gone and Woods-Cadiz, a longtime Oakland area administrator, at the helm, the charter network has also become a case study of sorts on what happens when school leaders are asked to take over institutions that have been led by strong visionaries with definite ideas about how things ought to be done.

Related: The painful backlash against ‘no-excuses’ school discipline

Chavis, who once taught in the ethnic studies department at San Francisco State University, is famous — in California education circles and beyond — for berating students and faculty members, sometimes with racial slurs. During his tenure at the chain from 2000 to 2012, he was criticized for lodging punishments designed for what he called in his book “extra embarrassment.” He once shaved the head of a misbehaving student caught repeatedly stealing; some unruly students were forced to wear humiliating signs. And Chavis often referred to black students as “darkies.”

“We didn’t have the successes we had by accident. So, I’m really into not changing our model.”

Questions about Chavis’ leadership style were compounded by a 2012 state investigation that alleged Chavis had misappropriated more than $3.8 million in funds. The allegations embroiled the network in a fight with the Oakland Unified School District and the Alameda County school board, both of which sought to revoke AIMS’ charter and close the schools.

The chain fought back, obtaining a stay that allowed it to remain open for the 2013–2014 school year. In the meantime, however, it lost hundreds of students.

The tide seemed to turn back in AIMS favor in July 2014 when an Alameda County superior court judge found that local officials had violated a California law requiring achievement — as judged by strong test scores — to be the primary factor in deciding whether a charter stays open. In October, the chain and the school district signed a settlement agreement and the school district agreed to stop pursuing closure.

Related: Strict discipline can help students—as long as schools stay flexible

Now, with Chavis gone, AIMS educators say they are on a mission to figure out which part of the schools’ unusual style helped propel them into the ranks of the best schools in the country and which part created the mess that angered parents, worried officials and nearly cost the chain its life.

American Indian Model Schools
The walls of the American Indian Model Schools are covered with motivational signs like this one. Credit: Kyle Spencer

“We’re taking a little while to figure out what worked,” said David Chiu, the head of the network’s K-8 school. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Chavis, who now lives in North Carolina, is already critical of the new administration, insisting from his new home that the schools will not thrive without his leadership and all of his policies. Chavis’ own children, who live in Oakland with their mother, still attend the schools.

AIMS was founded in Oakland in 1996 as the American Indian Public Charter School to educate Native American students in 6th through 8th grades. The city, which has one of the poorest-performing school systems in the country, also has a small number of Native Americans (3,000 according to the 2010 census) who moved to Oakland from the 1950s to the 1970s as part of a federal relocation program.

But by 2000, the middle school was floundering. State test scores were shockingly low and the school board wanted to shut it down.

That’s when Chavis took the helm, transforming the school from an educational disaster into a darling of charter proponents.

Instead of having students move to a different classroom and teacher for each new subject, with new sets of teachers each school year—the practice in most middle schools — Chavis kept students together in the same room and gave them the same teacher for several years in a row. The idea was to foster a familial bond between the school’s mostly low-income students and their teachers. He also lengthened the school day, added summer school and liberally doled out detention. To support one of his underlying philosophies, that schools should prepare students to “compete in a free-market capitalist society,” he gave out financial rewards for good attendance and, later, for good scores on Advanced Placement exams for students at the high school he opened in 2006.

Enrollment rose and performance improved. But some of Chavis’ detractors say that demographic changes — the chain went from mostly Native American to mostly Asian-American — may have contributed to the schools’ successes. Critics also charged that the schools under-enrolled black and Hispanic students and “cherry picked” high achievers.

In the 2008-2009 school year, 37 freshmen were enrolled in the high school. By the fall of 2011, that class had dwindled to 21 students. Critics claim that the decline in enrollment reflects the chain’s continuing effort to weed out struggling students.

Related: How many students leave charter schools and why do they go?

“It [the charter network] is not representative of the population of the city at large,” said Jody London, vice president of the Oakland Board of Education.

Despite detractors, the schools continued to receive accolades. Last year, the Washington Post, named the high school among the most challenging in the country, based on a ranking system that rewards schools for, among other things, having a high percentage of seniors taking college-level standardized tests like AP tests. U.S. News & World Report ranked it the nation’s 11th best charter.

“We’re taking a little while to figure out what worked. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Like many charter operators, Chavis is a proponent of the “broken window” theory — the idea that if you let students get away with small infractions, they will graduate to more serious ones. The philosophy has taken hold in many charter schools around the country, but it is increasingly coming under fire. Kevin G. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who is studying charter school discipline measures, says strong punishments for small infractions work for some students but can make other students feel “constrained and disempowered.”

During a phone interview, Chavis countered that the tactics are necessary because they send a clear message to kids about what is allowed and prepares them for a “real world” in which small infractions — like tardiness and disruptive behavior — can cost people their jobs.

The network’s high school principal, Clifford Thompson, said he too subscribed to “the broken window” philosophy of discipline. “There is never a time that a mixed message is sent,” he said. A few minutes later, Woods-Cadiz chided a female student for running in the cafeteria. “She knows better than that,” Woods-Cadiz said.

As if to demonstrate the schools’ commitment to warm but firm leadership, Woods-Cadiz brought a visitor into a fifth-grade classroom. There, one of her favorite teachers was discussing Dragonwings, by Laurence Yep, a children’s novel about a Chinese boy’s arrival in America in the early 1900’s. As the teacher recounted to the class how she had awakened early that morning to ponder a scene in the book, her voice became warm and animated.

But during a time set aside to discuss chores, it became clear that strict discipline was not forgotten. A boy raised his hand hoping to become one of the classroom monitors and the teacher let him know he would not be picked for the chore, telling him firmly: “Wait till you get more responsible.”

Still, many of Chavis’ ideas are gone.

Related: Do zero tolerance school discipline policies go too far?

Aila O’Loughlin, a high school English teacher, says “fear and humiliation” is a tactic of the bygone administration. During training sessions, she said, teachers have been instructed not to use some of the harsher tones that were acceptable, and sometimes encouraged, in the past.

Carl Chan, a high school senior, says teachers still threaten detention, but more embarrassing disciplinary measures have been stopped. “Now, they’re more encouraging,” he said, of administrators.

Chavis questions whether the school can keep up its high ideals without following his strict regimen. “No school can do well if you don’t have standards and enforce them,” he said.

The schools’ test scores have dropped in recent years, although they still remain well above the state average. Woods-Cadiz says the drop is mostly due to the schools’ recent instability.

Steven Leung, the president of the AIMS board of directors, says parents and administrators “were in a state of panic” during the years in which they thought the schools might be shut down. “Now, we’re all working to bring the schools back,” he said.

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