George Will

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Seated at a solitary desk in the hall outside a classroom, the slender 13-year-old boy with a smile like a sunrise earnestly does remedial algebra, assisted by a paid tutor. She, too, is 13. Both wear the uniform -- white polo shirt, khaki slacks -- of a school that has not yet admitted the boy. It will, because he refuses to go away.

The son of Indian immigrants from Mexico, the boy decided he is going to be a doctor, heard about the American Indian Public Charter School here and started showing up. Ben Chavis, AIPCS' benevolent dictator, told the boy that although he was doing well at school, he was not up to the rigors of AIPCS, which is decorated with photographs of the many students it has sent to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. So the boy asked, what must I do?

Telling young people what they must do is what Chavis does. With close- cropped hair and a short beard flecked with gray, he looks somewhat like Lenin, but is less democratic. A Lumbee Indian from North Carolina, he ran track, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, got rich in real estate ("I wanted to buy back America and lease it to the whites") and decided to fix the world, beginning with AIPCS.

Founded in 1996, it swiftly became a multiculturalists' playground where much was tolerated and little was learned. Chavis arrived in 2000 to reverse that condition. Charter schools are not unionized, so he could trim the dead wood, which included all but one staff member.

David Whitman, in his book "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism," reports that in Chicago, from 2003 through 2006, just three of every 1,000 teachers received an "unsatisfactory" rating in annual evaluations; in 87 "failing schools" -- with below average and declining test scores -- 69 had no teachers rated unsatisfactory; in all of Chicago, just nine teachers received more than one unsatisfactory rating and none of them was dismissed. Chavis' teachers come from places such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Oberlin, Columbia, Berkeley, Brown and Wesleyan.

AIPCS is one of six highly prescriptive schools Whitman studied, where "noncognitive skills" -- responsible behaviors such as self-discipline and cooperativeness -- are part of the cultural capital the curriculum delivers. Many inner-city schools feature a monotonous chaos of disruption. AIPCS -- Oakland's highest performing middle school -- stresses obligation, not self-expression. Chavis, now "administrator emeritus," is adamant: "Everyone says we should 'preserve our culture.' There is a lot of our culture we should wipe out."


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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