The Ben Chavis Way

A middle-school principal walks into a bar.  Out front stand painted pictures of Geronimo and Sitting Bull, while inside a ragtag collection of drinkers loiter in dim corners.  Over at the bar, the principal spots the person he seeks.  She didn’t show up for a parent meeting at the school, and he figured she’d be here.

“I approached her and said, ‘Ms. Night Owl, you can’t come to a school meeting, but your ass can get drunk at a bar.’ Some drunk asked, ‘Who in the hell is that man running his mouth in our place?’  I looked at him and said, ‘I’m Ben Chavis, the principal of her daughter’s school.  Do you have a —-ing problem with me?’ The drunk was surprised that I did not back down to him inside the bar surrounded by other red lovers of the liquid spirits.  I walked closer to him and he said with the speech of someone who had had too any drinks, ‘I agree with you her kid should be in school.’  The people in the bar broke out laughing.  One guy said, ‘Set up a round of drinks for the principal,’ and everyone started laughing except Ms. Night Owl.

“She said, ‘I don’t appreciate you talking to me like this in public.’  I said, ‘Well, I don’t appreciate you standing me up and wasting my time and cheating your daughter out of an education.’  Many of the local American Indian and non-Indian community members considered me crazy for having confrontations like that one with people.  I chose to be crazy when dealing with some of the drunks and adult fools because it worked and it benefited my students’ education.  From that point on, her daughter was in school and did very well.”

That passage comes from Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City, by Chavis and Carey Blakely.  It tells the story of what happened when Chavis took over American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland in 2000. 

A quick comparison: In 2000, none of the sixth-, seventh-, or eighth-graders tested above the 50th percentile in math on state or national exams.  In 2008, the school boasted the highest test scores of all the public schools in Oakland.

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