Waiting For Culturally Relevant Education, Not Superman

February 15, 2011  |  

by Steven Barboza

“I went to a class where the professor said if you didn’t appreciate Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, you were culturally deprived, to which I responded, if you didn’t appreciate James Brown, you were culturally deprived.” — Gloria Ladson-Billings

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. The nation, after all, is facing an education crisis of the first order: only 6 in 10 blacks and Hispanics graduate from high school.

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 Wiggins 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.”

Detractors see the African mash-up of academics as fraudulent, saying you don’t have to see yourself in a curriculum; you just have to learn, or you’ll suffer the consequences.

But 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.”

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