Waiting For Culturally Relevant Education, Not Superman
As a recent documentary film suggests, many parents and educators have been “Waiting for Superman” to fix our broken public education system. He simply isn’t coming. Imhotep, however, has landed in Philly.
A public charter high school that graduated its first class in 2000, Imhotep is hard to miss if you live in Philadelphia. It’s based in a $10 million educational complex. It produces championship athletic teams. The student population of 558 is overwhelmingly black. No Imhotep student is left behind — they all go onto college. And every day, there’s an Imhotep wardrobe riot going on as many teachers and students don colorful African clothing.
For all its success in using “culturally relevant teaching,” the school hasn’t emitted so much as a dull bleep on the radar screens of education cognoscenti seeking replicable school reforms, leaving one to question whether the school is just “too African” for America.
However, culturally relevant teaching as practiced there might be worth another look as a method capable of reaching the nation’s students.
Named for the legendary ancient Egyptian genius from the third dynasty who is credited with inventing papyrus, designing pyramids and founding medicine, Imhotep is the kind of school where the principles of Kwanzaa are called upon every day, where self-determination is an article of faith, and where students learn to “take responsibility for yourself, your brothers and your sisters.”
“When I started Imhotep, I did a graphic that put the student in the middle and made sure everything was designed to meet the needs of the child, not the teachers’ or the administration’s or the institution’s,” said CEO and founder Christine Wiggins, who is called Mama Wiggins. “And I continually try to do that.”
This meant designing a curriculum that “centers” Imhotep students by valuing Africa as the birthplace of humanity and learning. Mama Higgins and her staff of 60 call the students “Nubians” and approach teaching as if academics originated in the motherland.
“Developmentally, children need to know they are descendants of great thinkers,” Wiggins said. “When you never show them anybody that looks like them and that hasn’t achieved anything, then they don’t believe that they can achieve anything.”
She added: “It’s not advantageous to put a child in the classroom and give him a textbook where the only pictures of people that look like him are people on their knees in chains and being whipped. We’re going to show them images of their great African fathers and mothers as leaders in math and science, so everything that I do is centered around that basic premise.”
The Imhotep formula appears to get results: for nine years straight, 100% of Imhotep students have gotten into college, Wiggins said, adding, “The average in the country is running about 30%.” Her students win entrance to between 5 and 20 colleges, giving them a wide choice of colleges to attend.
Incoming Imhotep students are not filtered. “The children who come to us are the ones who have not been ‘saved’ in traditional schools,” she said. “I do a dance if I get a child in grade nine who is reading on a sixth grade level. Usually they are reading on a fourth and fifth grade level.”
Imhotep offers an advanced placement program, senior internships requiring students to work in a business, government or community based organization. It also organizes small student learning communities and puts students through cultural rites of passage.
In addition, Imhotep has college partnerships with Arcadia University, Community College, Cornell University, Drexel University, Florida A&M, Howard University, Cheyney University, Lincoln University and Temple University.
Gloria Ladson-Billings, author of “The Dreamkeepers” and a leader in educating African-American children
“I think most people don’t really understand [culturally relevant teaching]. I think they don’t recognize that it is essentially not an attempt to have kids fit into an already unequal system. It’s really an attempt to help them develop the kind of critical skills that will allow them to challenge the system.”
"White teachers are perfectly capable of conducting culturally relevant teaching."
"As for Afrocentric schools, there’s nothing wrong with them so long as they do right by students. “People get all upset when [someone says] they’re going to [build] something Afrocentric,” she said. “[People] say, ‘Well where are they going to live, in an Afrocentric world?’ Well every major city in this country has a French lyceum where the wealthiest kids go to school.”
Molefi Asante, founder of the first doctoral program in African American studies at Temple University.
A major problem in education today is the educators, Asante said. “When you come out of a school of education, you know how to do time sheets and lesson plans. But in terms of actually dealing with children and grounding them in their cultural experiences and exciting them to go further and deeper and longer in their tradition, it is rare.”
Meanwhile, African American children “sit in the classrooms on the margins,” he said. “They are never given the subject position, and never seen as actors or agents or creators of knowledge. They’re always going to get somebody else’s knowledge.”
He said Afrocentricity works because it engenders self-worth. “What’s working are those Afrocentric schools that have deliberately, consciously decided that the way to educate African American children is to ground them in their cultural experiences so that they like not only themselves, but that they like African culture. The problem with black children is they hate Africa, and if you hate Africa you won’t learn. That is the fundamental dictum that seems to be the problem. They have negative attitudes toward their history, their culture, and their people.”
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