Schools that keep sight of the Motherland

During the last 15 years, one of the more important movements to establish a greater link between African-American children and the continent of their heritage has been African-centered schools.

The schools are among a group of similarly minded Detroit institutions, from the Shrine of the Black Madonna (whose full name is Shrine of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church) to the annual African World Festival (sponsored by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History). The schools begin working with children as young as 3, and teach an understanding of African people.

In Detroit, students at Aisha Shule/WEB Dubois Preparatory Academy learn the core curriculum subjects offered in traditional schools but from an African point of view.

"We still teach the Michigan Curricular Framework but with an African perspective," says Hasina Murphy, deputy director of the academy. "Instead of just teaching macro-economics, we have our students develop economic models for improving particular African countries. If we're talking about math or science, we discuss it in a fashion of how can we use math and science to help people on the continent. We make sure the students feel a sense of ownership over what they're learning"

Subjects such as African dance, drumming and Kiswahili are a part of the daily curriculum as well, but they don't take away from the achievements of the students in the classroom. Most students at African-centered schools in Michigan test above their grade level and currently, Murphy says. Aisha Shule, which is a K-12 school, has a 98 percent graduation rate.

"We expose students to things they may not get in the early grades. For example, our kindergartners have science projects," Murphy says. "We have an African ancestors day where kids learn about their historical ancestors such as Kwame Nkrumah, Queen Nzinga, Jomo Kenyatta — actual Africans. We go beyond African-American history and teach about Africa."

Some parents with children in African-centered schools say it's not only the positive reinforcement of African history that impresses them, but more importantly, the connection between teachers and parents.

"My children started out in DPS, and if the kids were lacking in certain areas, we wouldn't find out until the report cards came," says Sauni Daniel, whose two children attend Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered school in Oak Park. "Here at Nsoroma, the teachers stop you and give you all the information you need about your child. That makes a big difference."

According to Malik Yakini, founder of Nsoroma Institute, which was originally established as a private school in 1989 and later became a charter school in 1997, a big part of Nsoroma's success is that the teaching staff includes continental Africans.

In its last year as a private school, Nsoroma had 60 students. Yakini says enrollment doubled the first year as a tuition-free charter school and has only leveled off in the last three years.

"Being an African-centered school, it's positive that we can have teachers in the classroom actually from Africa that can share their experiences based on what we're teaching," Yakini says. "We've got teachers from Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, Eritrea, Senegal, and their knowledge is essential to what we teach."

Still, this teaching approach has some complications. Senegalese dance instructor Seydi Sarr-Robbins, who teaches at Nsoroma Institute, says that it is difficult for some African-American children to adapt to the teaching style of continental Africans. In her opinion, many students at the school initially find African pedagogy to be much stricter than their expectations. Equally, the African teachers on staff admit they have much to learn about their American students as well.

"Initially it is a very big adjustment for us as teachers," Sarr-Robinson says. "You come to class and think whatever you say, they will do, but if I say jump, American children say, 'Why?' They question every little thing. And we're not used to it."

So what are African-centered schools doing so differently? The Francophone teachers at Nsoroma Institute, for instance, teach French, but students are able to learn Kiswahili as well. Pupils refer to their male teachers as Baba, and to their female teachers as Mama. A reverence for elders is also strictly enforced to keep in line with African tradition. Things are considerably unconventional inside of African-centered schools, but the parents seem to be happy.

"I'm very happy with my son's progress since I switched him to Nsoroma," says Zeina Washington, who has a seventh grader enrolled in the school. "My son is learning dance, martial arts, Kiswahili, French and his attitude is a lot better. I've found an African community for my son to be educated in and that's going to affect the rest of his life."

Other educators however, still question whether a student's daily immersion into African-centered schools can have a lasting effect on relations between Africans and African-Americans. There is still not enough evidence yet to suggest what the long-range payoff will be.

"Even when kids go to African-centered schools they still come home to neighborhoods that are not in line with the curriculum," says Michael Kamuyu, a part-time faculty member in Africana Studies at Wayne State University. "I don't think there are enough children from Africa attending these schools to make an impact."

Yakini says he's well aware that more needs to be done to attract the children of African immigrants toward African-centered education locally, but also says that advertising to this community is a slow process.

Of the school's 245 students this year, seven were born in Africa and one has a Senegalese father. The four students who are from Kenya learned about the school when Nsroma hosted an event for the state Kenyan association. More such events and outreach are planned.

"We need to do much more reaching out to African communities, and those communities need to do more reaching out to conscious Africans here. It's a two-way street," Yakini says. "The fact that these schools exist is still not common knowledge."

Jonathan Cunningham is a staff writer for Orlando Weekly. Send comments to [email protected]

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