ST. LOUIS — On the first day of school, third-graders in Angela Robinson's class sat cross-legged on the floor and recited the African creed taped to the chalkboard. They would accept their duties and responsibilities, respect themselves and others, they stated.
“I will study hard,” they continued. “I will learn because I will study hard. I love myself. And loving myself, I will be myself, and know myself.”
Pamoja Preparatory Academy at Cole recently opened as an African-centered school, a place where reading, math and science are taught alongside African values, customs and culture. Among those values are self-control, respect toward elders and giving back to community.
The school is the first with an African focus in the St. Louis public school system, a district where about 80 percent of the students are black. It's also one of more than a dozen public schools in the city, traditional and charter, that are focused on a particular philosophy or emphasis.
Advocates of specialized schools in urban areas argue that they are an effective way of keeping school-age children in the central city. Magnet schools and often charter schools offer a specialized focus, such as performing arts, foreign language or classical education, to engage children who otherwise may lose interest at more traditional schools.
But others contend
that the African-centered approach is too narrowly focused on one racial group.
Earlier this year, a few people raised similar concerns at public meetings. They also questioned why the district was opening two schools where girls and boys now attend classes separately — another growing trend in urban education.
Both are among the initiatives Superintendent Kelvin Adams began this school year to give parents in the district more choice.
“The issue is providing more options for kids to keep them in school,” Adams told a group in March at Vashon High School. “For some kids, this could change how they look at themselves and look at others as well.”
Pamoja — Swahili for “together” — is modeled after similar programs in Kansas City, Detroit and Los Angeles, where African-centered schools have been popular and are growing.
Although it is the first public school of its kind in St. Louis, Pamoja follows in the footsteps of a private school in the Central West End. Hofi Ni Kwenu-Frederick Douglass Institute has operated a private school on Taylor Avenue for 34 years.
Since the adoption of No Child Left Behind, states and school districts have been under increasing pressure to close the achievement gap between black and white students. Results from the 2011 Missouri Assessment Program show that the gap persists. Nearly a 30-percentage point difference exists between white and black students in communication arts alone, according to the state education department. Statewide results for math were not readily available.
“We say that gap is not an intelligence gap,” said Kevin Bullard, executive director of the Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus in Kansas City, where about 1,200 students in preschool through 12th grade are enrolled in that district's African-centered program. “Often it's a teacher gap, in terms of teachers being able to address the learning needs of students within those environments.”
Pamoja opened with preschool through seventh grade in the Cole Elementary School building. So far, 211 students are enrolled. Teachers spent five days before classes learning ways to incorporate themes such as entrepreneurship, reinvestment, culture and leadership into their classrooms.
Students will learn about the contributions that Africans and African-Americans have made in the subject areas they are learning about, from math to science to music to literature.
This helps children feel more ownership in what they're studying, said Molefi Kete Asante, professor of African American Studies at Temple University.
School district officials say the cultural difference will not come at the expense of subjects that Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires all public schools to teach.
“We want children to learn all that they can to be great and be competitive in this world,” said Sean Nichols, principal at the school. “We also want them to understand there are contributions by Africans and African Americans, and that the world is connected.”
Students will learn that black history began long before slavery — and that slavery in the United States was just a sliver of the African experience.
Nichols wants to instill courtesy and respect in his students, just as students across the region are getting character education integrated into their classrooms.