Karely Ordaz remembers the first time she realized that good grades had good consequences. She was an eighth grader at Oakland Charter Academy and she had just found out that she was one of ten middle school students chosen for an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. “Never in my wildest dreams as an eighth grader did I think I’d be able to go to the capitol for free just because I had good grades,” she recalls. “That’s when I decided that I’d keep doing it.”
On the trip, she was able to spend time with former American Indian Model Schools (AIMS) director Ben Chavis, who had brought along some of his own students. She remembers talking to him about president Abraham Lincoln. “He said that Lincoln was his favorite president and I asked him why,” she recalls. “I thought it would be because of the slavery thing, but he said it was because he was able to keep his country, his community, together. He didn’t let them fall apart.”
Ordaz, 21, a graduate of American Indian Public High School and UC Berkeley, has spent most of her life in the AIM Schools system, which runs two middle schools—American Indian Public Charter School and American Indian Public Charter School II—and the high school. The first middle school was founded in 2000 by Chavis, who quickly became known for his disciplinary style and for focusing the students and faculty on improving state test scores. The second middle school and the high school were opened as enrollment increased, and all three schools have consistently improved their state test scores each year.
But the school system has been under fire since September, 2012, when the Oakland Unified School District sent administrators a “notice of violations” alleging improper business contracts with Chavis’ businesses, inappropriate credit card usage and lack of school board meeting documentation. After the AIMS administration made an official response in November to the district refuting many of the charges, the Oakland school board voted to begin the process of revoking the schools’ charter at the end of January.
The board will vote on March 20 on whether or not to close the schools. AIMS administrators will have the chance to appeal to Alameda County and the state of California. If they lose those appeals, the schools will close in June. A shutdown would affect over 1,000 downtown and East Oakland students.
Now an administrative assistant for current director of AIMS Sylvester Hodges and the AIMS board members, Ordaz is helping to lead the effort to preserve the schools for a generation of students that she says can benefit from them as she did. “These are schools where parents can send their kids and not have to worry about the academics,” she said. “Parents trust this system because it works and helps students find success in their futures.”
Ordaz, who has been working at AIPCS II since August, led the organizational effort to respond to the OUSD’s notice of violations and is working to implement changes in the schools to make them more compliant with charter requirements. She also owns and runs an independent tutoring company, Golden Eagles, which provides services to AIPCS II and other students after school.
In her office, she is surrounded by things from the old AIMS: Chavis’ book, “Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City” sits atop a cabinet; rows of binders filled with documents that Ordaz and former director Jason Chu had to put together in response to the notice of violations from the Oakland Unified School District are stacked neatly on a shelf. Some of the doors on the third floor of AIPCS II even have flyers on them that say “Save our AIM Schools.”
“She has stock in this school and she has protected it well,” said Bernadette Coleman, president of the Family Advisory Committee at AIPCS II. “She’s been on the front lines since the start.”
Ordaz’ educational start, like those of many children from Oakland’s immigrant families, was a rough one. She was born in the small town of La Palma in Mexico. After moving to Tijuana to look for work, her family decided to try to make the two-week journey to Los Angeles. She remembers travelling on foot at night. She was 4 years old. Her mother was pregnant with her little sister.
“I remember walking through a sewage tunnel and only being able to see the lighter that my dad was holding,” she said. “We got to the end of the tunnel and there were bars on the end of it. My dad had to pull them open so that my mom could fit through.”
By age 5, Ordaz had settled in Oakland with her family. She attended Hawthorne Elementary and Oakland Charter Academy for middle school, where she said she didn’t feel challenged. “I was lazy and no one pushed me. I was doing just enough to get by,” she said of herself during middle school. “My parents thought I was getting a good education but they didn’t know better. They weren’t educated here.”
In 2004, when Ordaz was in the eighth grade, Jorge Lopez took over the Oakland Charter Academy. At this time, Chavis was the director of AIPCS, but he mentored Lopez, Ordaz said, who soon implemented what she calls the “Chavis method of education.”
Chavis, who has been a controversial figure in Bay Area educational circles, believes in a strict pedagogical system. The website for his book, “Crazy Like a Fox” states that “Public embarrassment and making students repeat the grade can be effective tools” and “Academics, attendance and hard work are the keys to educational success in the inner city, not multiculturalism, victimization, or remedial math.”
“He eliminated all the holiday parties, bought us books so we didn’t have to work off of worksheets all the time and made us wear stricter uniforms,” said Ordaz, of eighth grade under the directorship of Lopez. “I graduated with a 3.67. That’s when I discovered I was smart.”
In 2005, Ordaz was part of the first ninth grade class at AIPHS, a class of only 30 students. Ordaz said that many of her junior high classmates chose not to attend AIPHS out of a fear of Chavis and his strict methods. She didn’t have the “high school experience” that most people had, but she said she enjoyed it. “We were like brothers and sisters because our class was so small. Our teachers were strict and we didn’t have extracurricular activities, but we were very, very busy with academics,” she said.
Ordaz recalls her teachers as extremely strict, dishing out detentions liberally. She said, laughing, that one of her friends got a detention for tying his shoes in class. “We thought it was ridiculous at the time, of course,” she said. “We kept trying to break the rules to see how far we could get, but eventually we just got tired of spending Saturdays in detention.”
The school didn’t have any extracurricular activities, either. Ordaz said she had to find her own opportunities for activities outside of school, such as volunteering at a library or church, in order to have an attractive college application. She said that students would complain about not having clubs or sports, and Chavis would respond by asking them to write a proposal for the activities they wanted. They never did, she said, because they were busy with homework.
“Sometimes it felt like too much and you felt like you didn’t want to be there anymore,” said Jose Peña, 21, a fellow alum of AIPHS who is now a tutor with Ordaz’ company. “You would hear about other schools having dances and field trips. At that age, you don’t really think about the quality of education you’re receiving. I didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now.”
For Ordaz, she now considers the AIMS community her family, and she says no other school would have pushed her in the same way. “If I wasn’t a part of AIMS, I would be married with a kid right now,” she said. “I have a job and business and I’m able to support a family. That’s what AIMS gave me.”
Ordaz says she supports Chavis’ emphasis on strict discipline, particularly for immigrant families. “In Oakland, if you mess up, you can end up getting involved with gangs and drugs. I think it works in this environment,” she said.
The AIMS community is largely made up of minority or immigrant students, mostly Asian and Hispanic. The three AIMS schools reported a total enrollment of almost 500 students during the 2010-2011 school year; in that year, reports to the California Department of Education indicated that almost 70 percent of the students were Asian, 18 percent were Hispanic and 1 percent were American Indian.
The schools have also shown consistently high test scores. For the past few years, they have consistently scored over 900 on their Academic Performance Index, which measure a school’s yearly progress and determine federal funding. In 2012, AIPHS had an API of 928 out of a maximum of 1,000. The AIMS website states that since 2009, 100 percent of seniors have been accepted into four-year universities.
After graduating high school in 2009, Ordaz attended UC Berkeley, majoring in American Studies with a concentration on Environmental Policy and Public Health. She graduated in three years and was hired upon graduation by AIMS, which was then in the midst of dealing with the mismanagement allegations made by the OUSD. “Before me, they didn’t really have anyone who kept things organized and that was part of the problem,” she said. “I knew I had to go back and help out.”
Ordaz’s toughest assignment was when she and former director Jason Chu had 60 days after these schools were given the notice of violations to collect documents and checks to refute the accusations made by OUSD. Those 60 days were filled with looking for the right documents to defend transactions made by Chavis, the board and school administrators.
Coleman’s office is across the hall from Ordaz’ and she said Ordaz and Chu were working non-stop during those days to make sure everything was done on time. “I would come in and they would be in there and they would stay after I left,” said Coleman. “I remember her telling me, ‘If I leave, we won’t make the deadline.’”
Now, things are calmer while the schools wait for March 20, when the school board will vote on whether or not to start the process of closing AIMS. Ordaz says she plans to keep fighting to keep the schools open, no matter what the school board decides. “We will have an appeals process if OUSD votes to close next week, and I will help out with that,” she said.
“I’ll always be a part of this school,” said Ordaz, “and it will always be a part of me.”