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Ben Chavis’s new book: “Crazy like a fox”

By Katy Murphy
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 at 3:54 pm in achievement gap, charter schools, test scores.

It’s not yet for sale, but I recently received a book written by the (officially) former director of American Indian Public Charter School, Ben Chavis. It’s titled, “Crazy like a fox: One principal’s triumph in the inner city.”

The book begins like this:

Before I became principal, people called American Indian Public Charter School the zoo. …

The students smoked cigarettes, fought, drank, and broke beer and liquor bottles on Magee Avenue, the road lining the school. There were old, dingy mattresses nearby where they had sex. A staff member allegedly sold drugs to the students, some of whom snuck into a tool shed on campus to smoke pot. Students threw water balloons off the roof and computers out the class windows.

The narrative bounces between Chavis’s Lumbee upbringing in North Carolina (Takeaway message: People in the Deep South, even some Klan members, are not as racist as some in the Bay Area might think), his musings on race and racial mixing, his educational philosophy and respect for No Child Left Behind, success stories of some of his former students — and, of course, how he salvaged the American Indian School, took away its drumming circles and instilled serious discipline and a laser-like focus on math and reading.

The teachers were strict, and I was “crazy,” as some refer to me. Crazy like a fox is the way I look at it. I behave aggressively, demand success, and keep the fools at bay, as it says in Proverbs in the Bible.

For all of the history he includes about American Indians, he doesn’t really address the fact that only four Native American students attended the two middle schools last year, according to the California Department of Education, compared to 22 in 2000-01 and 45 (nearly half of the school’s population) in 2001-02. He suggests that their numbers remained fairly constant during his tenure there (“If you look at the number of Indian students attending the school, it has basically stayed the same over the course of my years at the school”).

But the statistics I’ve seen show a steep drop in 2006-07.

I wonder where all of the American Indian students went.

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  • Nextset

    Booklady: Is experience “racist”? Are documented physical differences “racist”? Is everything you don’t like “racist”?

    Asians and blacks are at different ends of the spectrum for onset of puberty. Do you agree puberty makes a difference in how well someone works in a classroom? How do you know why someone is “losing focus”? Poor Teachers or physiological reasons?

    All children can achieve? That’s a statement. Are you trying to say all children can achive at the same rate? Really? Based on what research?

    If you believe that people are all the same, maybe you should read medical research first – be sure to note the differences the various races present in everything from diabetes to height to blood type to susceptability to disease and disorders. Is it “racist” to routinely test Asians for Hepatitis while testing blacks for something else? Or is it just experience and good practice.

    Your venom probably has some other cause. Childhood trauma?

    It’s the experience of human history that people are different. Individually and in groups. If that scares you you need to go back to school yourself. Our schoolchildren are better off with educators who are realists and can manage their charges to get the most out of the limited educational time and budgets before the kids are dumped on the world to fend for themselves. We don’t need starry eyed idealists wasting the opportunities the students have.

  • alfred

    this guy is a straight out racist…just heard him on KFI in Los Angeles on the Bill Handel show saying that Los Angeles USD needs to get rid of the Mexicans…what is that coming from an educator??? honestly…come on???

  • alfred

    don’t approve my comment and I will post this on the LA times blog and the Sacramento bee…you’ll see…if not bigger…im connected

  • Nextset

    Alfred, which guy are you complaining about? It sounds interesting.

  • alfred

    Ben Chavis

  • Nextset

    Alfred: What about Ben Chavis? What did he say that was so interesting?

  • Nextset

    I’m going to have to get this book. One question I want answered is why Chavis cares about the ghetto students enough to bother to work with them, work in public education, and fight this battle to make these kids into competitors who are going to be nobody’s victims? You don’t see much of this anymore. Certainly I didn’t stay in education – I saw public education as being hopeless and worse, low paying. Plus I had a law degree and was waiting on bar passage.

    I have always believed that tactics such as Chavis’ would work and would produce world-beaters from among the public school students. But it’s a lot of trouble for no money. Where is his dedication coming from?

    For example, where did Mimi Silbert of Delancey Street get the moxie to spend her life turning junkies into presentable job applicants? Ever try to manage a junkie?

    I did see this kind of dedication in the early ’60s from the Catholic Nuns. They didn’t mind getting an upper class student but they really got off on fixing a (relatively) lower class student and making them over. And now the nuns are extinct.

    I have worked with a number of law clerks. I have found it is not feasible to fix/work with a lower class candidate. If anything you end up putting them in a position to get in real trouble. I have taken immigrants (Indian) from college intern to lawyer and watched that person have a career I would have liked to have. The family was once (very) poor. In one generation they are solidly professional class. They laugh at how easy the USA is to make it in. The Ethiopians I know say the same thing (poverty to med school, etc).

    Racist my behind.

    The reason the black candidates typically have the problems they do is because they don’t want to change and are resistant to authority (telling them what they are to do). Even in the face of immediate bad consequences they refuse to change even on cosmetic things. I see this as one of the consequences to going to bad schools where they are taught indiscipline – which did not happen prior to the Great Society nonsense of the early 1960s. Chavis sounds old school, and that worked.

    Speaking of cosmetic things, yesterday in court I noticed a darker skinned black girl in her early 20s (yes I used that word – girl). She has a number of facial piercings. You shouldn’t do piercings at all, especially when you tend to keloid scarring. She thought it would be good to put metal into through face above the lip. Now she has a disfiguring tumour like growth where the piercing was. Probably has no health insurance to deal with it either. She probably has a pierced tongue also. Wonder about her employment prospects?

    Can’t fix stupid. Darker skins are associated with keloid formation. Gotta be careful when you consider cutting on them. Maybe these differences weren’t taught in her high school biology/health classes. She probably wasn’t taught that prospective employers use such cues as poor hygene/self care as a reason to deselect such candidates for employment or association.

    Minority kids need people like Chavis much more than Ken and Barbie do.

    Brave New World.

  • Nextset

    Thought about the last post over lunch and needed to add something. There are black candidates for professional career ladders. You have the Immigrants such as Nigerians and Ethiopians, or West Indian Blacks (tend to have intact family structure and be more competitive). And you have noticable candidates who are 2nd or 3rd generation professionals (typically private schooled). These groups are better able to make the professional ladder. The far larger group I’m worried about are the public school blacks. People don’t have the amount of energy required to make these people over, trying to undo the years of damage from urban public school. The problems are too pervasive. They shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t be so clueless, inflexible and resistant to change to meet a goal. Too bad they weren’t schooled by Chavis.

    And I see it even in new generation extended family members – the very few in public schools. I know they will not keep up with the private school relatives, not even want to. They are all sorting, you see it in their friends, their interests & their politics.

    Crazy Like A Fox doesn’t bother me at all. I think he is what kids need, warts and all.

  • Michael Dougherty

    He explains that statistical disparity in the book. I don’t have it in front of me at the moment, but it has something to do with how they respond to certain questions about their ethnicity. In fact at one point he mentions that his Asian students were his worst…probably their parents were exasperated and wanted to send them somewhere besides where they were. A lot of people are of mixed race (heck, look at his last name!) so it really depends on how it’s asked. I’m in Oklahoma, where a lot of pretty European looking folks claim to have some Native American ancestry, but are not likely to report that on an employment form, for instance.