About three dozen American Indian Model Schools (AIMS) students and parents took turns Wednesday, each speaking for one minute, hoping to convince the Oakland school board that their three schools shouldn’t be shut down. The board voted in January to give the AIMS administration a “notice of intent to revoke” the schools’ charters after alleging fraud and financial mismanagement at the schools. The public hearing, held in the gymnasium at La Escuelita Elementary, was meant to allow the AIMS community to respond to the notice.
“Me and my brother were troublemakers, but this school has helped me,” said American Indian Public Charter School II seventh grader Alex Ramirez, before breaking into tears. “I transformed from a troublemaker to a well-behaved student because of this school. Why close down a school that does so much for the children and the community?”
AIMS runs two middle schools—American Indian Public Charter School and American Indian Public Charter School II—and one high school, American Indian Public High School. In September, 2012, the Oakland Unified School District sent school administrators a “notice of violations” alleging improper business contracts with AIMS founder Ben Chavis’ businesses, inappropriate credit card usage and lack of school board meeting documentation.
Wednesday’s hearing came two months after AIMS administrators submitted a response to the notice of violations and a month after the OUSD vote to begin the process of revoking the charter. After a meeting with Superintendent Tony Smith earlier this month, Wednesday’s public hearing and a final vote in March, AIMS administrators will have the chance to appeal to Alameda County and the state of California. If they lose, the schools will close in June. A shutdown would affect over 1,000 downtown and East Oakland students.
Comments from students and parents came after a 20-minute presentation by AIMS board president Toni Cook and interim executive director Sylvester Hodges detailing the steps the administration has taken to correct the mistakes that were listed in the notice of violations. Hodges began his presentation by declaring that the relationship and contracts between AIMS, Chavis and his businesses were a conflict of interest, something that the AIMS administration has been slow to acknowledge. Chavis has denied these allegations in the past, claiming that the AIMS board members were aware that he owned the businesses from which the schools were renting space.
“This point needed to be made publicly,” Hodges said. “I’m making this point publicly now. I don’t believe in hiding from the public something that risks the schools.”
Hodges addressed concerns that AIMS failed to institute acceptable changes to its financial organization by asserting that the administration has hired new staff, as well as a consultant who monitors the schools’ financial procedures. He said that the school credit cards are now centralized and monitored and there are limits placed on them, to prevent them from being used for personal spending. Hodges emphasized that the only relationship Chavis currently has with the schools is that of a parent, since his three children attend AIMS schools.
Hodges read for the board a letter from him to Chavis and Chavis’ wife defining their relationship with the schools. “The new board wants to acknowledge that you did a great job in creating AIMS and progressing it,” the letter states. “It’s necessary that we define your relationship to our schools. Your past roles are not in effect. Your name has been removed from all banking accounts. In addition, no future contracts or business will be allowed between AIMS and American Delivery Systems and Lumbee Holdings, LLC [Chavis' businesses] due to major issues under investigation.”
Chavis’ name was absent from the comments made by students and parents, too. They instead focused on AIMS’ consistently high API scores, which measure a school’s yearly progress and determine federal funding. During the 2009-2010 school year, AIPCS had a score of 988, the highest of all the schools in the state.
They also consistently mentioned the effectiveness of the teachers and the community that they say has formed within the schools. “A public school is not a business,” said Connie, an AIMS parent who declined to give her last name. “What the founder did should be none of our business. He’s gone. Let high-performing schools keep going.”
Many students said they felt comfortable at their schools and were afraid they would be bullied at other schools. “I’m finally in a community where everyone wants to learn,” said Brandon Charles, a seventh grade student from AIPCS II. “I’m not ridiculed. Please don’t take that away from me.”
“I used to have horrible grades,” said Sally Chan, a student at AIPCS. “I’m doing much better now. My teachers work very hard to plan their lessons and help us improve. When I need help on anything, my teachers are there to help me and even tutor me extra. They have given me support, wisdom and courage.”
But a handful of adults were in support of the schools being closed. Tania Kappner, a history teacher at Oakland Tech High School and a member of the group By Any Means Necessary, commented not only the school’s financial concerns, but its teaching methods, saying that the schools placed too much emphasis on discipline. “Tough love is not the only way,” Kappner said. “We need structure and creativity, and we need it for all of the kids in the community. We should be taking the resources from here and investing them in our public schools that serve everybody.”
Comments like this, when made on the podium to the OUSD board, were drowned out by boos from the full gymnasium.
After the public hearing was over, AIMS families and kids huddled around outside La Escuelita discussing the event. Destiny Cheng, a fifth grade student at AIPCS II, took a break from running around with her friends to say that a lot of kids at her school are getting better and that her favorite subject is math because she’s good at it. When asked if she had thought about what she would do if her school was shut down, she gave a blank stare and a firm “No.”
The OUSD board will hold their final vote on March 20 at La Escuelita Elementary School.
Read the entire OUSD notice of violations report here. (Click on “12-2557 Notice of Violation – Named Schools.”) An audit report by the state’s Financial Crisis & Management Assistance Team is included, on pages 946 to 1,001. OUSD has not made the AIMS administration’s response to the notice publicly available yet.