Although American Indian Public Charter School II in Oakland has some of the highest test scores in Northern California, the school has been embroiled in controversy since it opened in 2007. Its founder, Ben Chavis, has come under heavy criticism for allegedly making racist and sexist comments. And the school’s governing organization — American Indian Model schools, which runs three schools in Oakland — was the subject of an investigation into alleged embezzlement and conflict of interest.
Then in April of this year, Oakland Unified School District officials issued a scathing report, recommending that the Oakland school board deny AIPCS II’s charter-renewal application. Over the course of about fifty bolded and bullet-pointed pages, the report, drafted by OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith and Office of Charter Schools Coordinator Gail Greely, laid out a stunningly detailed case for why the school’s charter renewal should be denied — from financial mismanagement to conflict of interest to violation of federal disclosure and civil rights laws. The report also criticized the school for limited parental involvement in school decision-making and high teacher turnover. In a comprehensive ranking rubric in which five is the highest and one is the lowest, the school received only one score (out of 43) that was higher than three, or “underdeveloped.”
But in the end, the board voted 4-3 to renew the school’s charter — and in fact, allow it to begin expanding into elementary-school grades in the fall. Board members Alice Spearman, Noel Gallo, Chris Dobbins, and Jumoke Hinton Hodge voted in favor of the renewal, while Jody London, Gary Yee, and David Kakishiba voted against.
American Indian, in short, had overcome controversy again — and it was largely a result of the school’s exceptionally high rank on the state Academic Performance Index — which is calculated on a 200-to-1000-point scale, and on which AIPCS II currently scores a near-perfect 990. As Spearman was quoted in the Oakland Tribune saying at the meeting, “We don’t have one school in the Oakland school district with that kind of score” — the implication being, essentially, that the ends justify the means. Indeed, even in the face of mounting criticism on a number of fronts, American Indian and its supporters have pointed to the school’s high test scores as something of a silver bullet in a district long known for low achievement.
But there’s evidence to suggest that the school’s high scores aren’t the result of an unusually high caliber of teaching or organization, but rather the educational equivalent of bringing in ringers — in this case, from nearby Lincoln Elementary, a public school that is, in many ways, a beacon for the district, consistently churning out some of the highest test scores in the city and having received numerous statewide awards for achievement. Lincoln’s API currently sits at 961, making it the highest among similar schools in the state. It’s often called, only half-facetiously, “The Harvard of elementary schools” — and upon graduating, up to three-quarters of its students flock to American Indian Public Charter II, according to Lincoln principal John Melvin.
“There’s clearly a trend that I observed that most of our kids — who had traditionally attended Westlake [Middle School] — are going to American Indian,” said Melvin, who is just finishing his fourth year as principal of Lincoln. (AIPCS II’s sister school and forebear, American Indian Public Charter School, has also been accused of cherry-picking high-achieving students, but because it draws from a more diffuse pool of elementary schools, the case is harder to prove.) At Lincoln, at least, part of the phenomenon is self-selection, according to Melvin: AIPCS II is mere blocks away from Lincoln, making it a defacto neighborhood school, and its rigorous teaching style is, according to Yee (whose wife was formerly Lincoln’s principal), similar to what you might find in an elite East-Asian school, perhaps making it more appealing to Lincoln’s overwhelmingly Asian-American parent base.
But there may be something a little less organic and a little more improper to the Lincoln-American Indian pipeline. According to Melvin, the school appears to be asking parents to submit test scores as part of their student’s applications — which would be a direct violation of district rules, which mandate a blind-admissions lottery. Another principal, John Stangl of Laurel Elementary, which feeds to American Indian Charter School, also said that parents request report cards, grades, and test scores of students, who then request them from the school, though he doesn’t know whether the requests are for application purposes, which is against the rules, or post-admission assessment and tutoring, which is not.
Administrators at AIPCS II didn’t respond to requests for comment, but it’s clear that the school is used to allegations of cherry-picking: In its wesbite’s extensive FAQ section, it states, “How could we cherry pick? We only have very basic information about applicants before holding our lottery. We don’t know their grades. We don’t know their test scores. We’ve likely never even seen them.”
Gail Greely, the charter schools coordinator who drafted the anti-renewal recommendation, said she hadn’t heard of the school requesting transcripts or test scores as part of the admission process, but that if it were, “that would be something for our office to look into.”
Regardless, though, the fact remains: Whether by virtue of explicit cherry-picking or simple self-selection by parents who want to continue sending their kids to a neighborhood school, AIPCS II has one of the most consistently high-achieving incoming classes in the district. And in that sense, it’s no wonder that students at American Indian do so well on its tests: The school would have to fail miserably for its kids to lose so much ground. In other words, maybe American Indian’s achievements — the achievements that have allowed it to keep its doors open despite mounting criticism — aren’t really the result of exceptional schooling, but of exceptional students. “It’s supposed to be blind acceptance, but it ends up that most of the kids who are entered have high test scores,” said Melvin.
They’re also exceedingly homogeneous: According to state-collected data from the 2010-2011 school year, the most recent available, American Indian’s ethnic makeup was 86 percent Asian — vastly more than the district at large, which is only 13 percent Asian. And in an ironic twist for a school that was originally intended to serve American Indians — and which is still thought of by many as a haven for a population that’s struggled mightily with institutional oppression — the school had exactly zero students who identified as American Indian in 2010-2011.
That’s a sticking point for some local American Indians, said one prominent member of the Bay Area American-Indian community, who asked to be anonymous for fear of making waves. “If anything, I just wish they would change their name — it’s misleading, and potentially damaging to our community.”
That seems unlikely, considering the fact that AIPCS II is currently sitting pretty — whether the American Indian community, the district, or even some of the school board likes it or not.
As Jody London, one of the three school board members who voted against reinstating the school’s charter, said in a recent interview, “I don’t dispute that the school has high test scores — but it has violated the public trust.”