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Poor Scores Leave an Afrocentric School in Chicago Vulnerable

3/2/2016, 3:33 p.m.
CHICAGO — Test scores suggest that the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, an African-centered school, is struggling mightily. Its students in ...
Asia Donahue, 10, read a mathematics question in the fourth-grade class of Kiana Richard, left, at Sizemore.

CHICAGO — Test scores suggest that the Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, an African-centered school, is struggling mightily. Its students in third through eighth grades scored in only the 14th percentile in reading on national achievement tests last year and in the eighth percentile in math.

Those statistics have prompted the Chicago Public Schools to recommend closing Sizemore. But here in a South Side neighborhood riddled with crime, blight and poverty, where the black experience can seem like a constant struggle, Sizemore’s many supporters argue that their students’ success is measured by much more than test scores. The school has done exceedingly well, they say, instilling confidence in a psychologically battered population.

“When you talk about children who are suffering from all the ills of, you know, the residual effects of slavery,” said Danielle Robinson, who is in her third year as Sizemore’s principal, “absolutely this is where they need to be.”

Like dozens of African-centered schools across the country, Sizemore embodies much of what racial justice activists are screaming from rooftops. Suspension is a last resort. Teachers address students by courtesy titles and their last names. The accomplishments of blacks are front and center in lesson plans.

Yet many African-centered schools have found themselves on the chopping block because of subpar testing, the proliferation of large charter networks with more resources and political clout, and lingering angst over Black Power principles.

Whereas supporters of African-themed education see their work as self-empowerment, some others — a number of them in the moneyed, mostly white elite — see something much scarier.

“They have a double whammy,” said Martell L. Teasley, the chairman of the department of social work at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who recently wrote about Afrocentric charters in the Journal of African American Studies. Not only can’t they compete with large charters, he said, but “they’re more demonized because they’re black.”

His study of about two dozen Afrocentric charter schools across the country, published in January, found that most of them fall short of national testing standards. Dr. Teasley said that he supported the concept and mission of the schools, but that they needed to prepare their students better for standardized tests. Without that, he said, African-centered schools will fail to earn mainstream legitimacy and will be soft targets for school boards looking to make budget cuts.

Illinois’s charter school commission is scheduled to vote on Tuesday on whether to accept the Chicago Public Schools’ recommendation to close Sizemore.

The district is financially troubled and gearing up for a contract fight against the charter-averse teachers union. Yet it argues that its decision to close Sizemore and three other charters has to do with academics, plain and simple.

There are many small charters that test well, Emily Bittner, a spokeswoman for the district, wrote in an email.

While the district “values providing enriching cultural experiences for all our students,” Ms. Bittner wrote, “it is unacceptable to fail to teach students basic math and reading skills, no matter which school model is used.”