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Sankofa Academy celebrates student achievement

on January 22, 2010

The third day of drenching rain this week did not affect the buoyant mood inside the old gymnasium at Sankofa Academy in North Oakland. Kids in bright yellow shirts stood on stage practicing for their upcoming performance in front of family, friends and teachers for an event that would replace recess that day: Sankofa’s student achievement celebration.

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” they shouted in unison. “Respect is all I really need!”

Respect is an important principle at Sankofa, a district-run K-5 school, and the ten students who were working on their performance with their coach, Hazel Jay, were doing their best to demonstrate it. They repeated their motions over and over without complaint. They smiled and looked straight at each other as they went through a part of the performance that required each student to call out the name of a different civil rights hero. They also listened patiently as each student took his or her turn practicing a memorized spoken word poem.

“Louder!” Jay reminded a soft-spoken boy. Jay is an intervention specialist, a certified teacher who provides academic support to students who are falling behind in their schoolwork or need some extra help socially. Jay is also a poet, and is training the thirteen Sankofa students who will compete this spring in the 31st annual, district-wide Martin Luther King Oratorical Fest: “Sounds of Hope.”

“Step forward, hold your head up proud. You’re beautiful!” she encouraged a girl with three twisted ponytails tied with bright plastic ball elastics.

Like the oratorical fest, the annual student achievement celebration at Sankofa is tied to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Sankofa Principal Monique Brinson said. Recognizing children for excellence in the context of celebrating King served “to make it real for the children and to have them know that they can be actively engaged as participants in their transformation and liberation,” Brinson said.

At Wednesday’s ceremony each child in the school was called forward by name to receive an award in one of five categories: Academic Excellence for students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” on the standardized California State Test, Youth Leadership for students who demonstrated that they were capable of making great change, Greatest Improvement for students who have come the furthest in their reading skills since the beginning of the school year, Perseverance for students who worked hardest towards improvement both academically and socially, and Excellent Participation for students who demonstrate good manners and active involvement in their school day.

“The student achievement assembly was really to encompass all of the work of my classroom teachers, staff and families,” Brinson said. She said she wanted to “showcase the student learning in the classrooms and the student learning that occurs in our extended day program, to highlight all facets of achievement. I want my students to see how academic excellence exists in a school community like mine.”

The student body at Sankofa is 88 percent African American and 75 percent of the students are considered low-income. This is not the type of community that is statistically likely to do well when achievement is measured in standardized test scores. In Oakland, the average California State Test score for African Americans is 630 out of 1,000, according to Oakland Unified School District superintendent, Tony Smith.

This is not the future Brinson envisions for her students. “Deficit model thinking says that children who are of color and poor will never excel because of innate ability or environment,” Brinson explained. “Our data proves that that is an erroneous belief system. When we as adults and educators provide our students with an optimal learning environment, they will excel.”

In 2009, the average standardized test score for students at Sankofa was 719. In California, a score of 800 is considered proficient, and while Sankofa’s test score average has not yet reached that level, the school’s scores have come up a total of 183 points since it became a K-5 school in 2007.

Brinson said Sankofa Academy, which currently has 111 students, is designed to be a small school, where adults can focus more attention on each individual child. Teachers at small schools often have smaller class sizes and can spend more minutes per day working one-on-one each student in their care. Building relationships with the students’ families and with the outside community becomes easier at a small school, Brinson said.

“She has a vision and it’s all inclusive,” said Anne Farwell, explaining her impression of Brinson’s leadership. Farwell is an English language coach for the district who works with Oakland’s Network One elementary schools and attended Wednesday’s event. “She’s really brought a lot of family members in — a dad’s club, a mom’s club. Everyone feels like a part of the family here and they are all doing the best they can for each individual child.”

As the district struggles with massive budget cuts for the upcoming year — now predicted to be more than $36 million — Sankofa may be in for a bit of a shake-up. The district may close low-performing schools and move their students into more stable ones, and Sankofa could ultimately gain more students. According to Brinson, two special education classes of K-2 autistic children will be added to Sankofa’s campus next year, although there are currently no other plans to increase Sankofa’s student body population.

Though Brinson said the school’s size is one of its primary assets, she also said, “our goal is to grow because we know it’s necessary for our survival.” With some additional support – a school counselor, for instance – Sankofa could maintain its current learning environment, she said, “if we are able to integrate [new students] in a succinct way.”

Back in the gymnasium, the Sankofa community had come out in force for the student achievement assembly. Parents, grandparents, other relatives, caretakers and the school staff filled the chairs, stood along the walls, and squeezed in the back door for a view. One woman attentively filmed the entire ceremony with a petite silver camcorder, even moving in for close-up shots right in front of the stage when her seat against the wall wouldn’t give her a clear enough view.

Digital cameras flashed and uproarious applause sounded as each child’s name was announced, punctuated by cries of, “That’s my grandbaby!”

The kids tended to smile shyly as they hustled to the front of the room to receive their certificate from their teacher and a handshake from their principal.

“I know my grandson will go the right way,” said Kimberly Stevens-Robinson, 46, who had driven close to 45 minutes to watch her grandson, Vernon Castle, 6, receive an award for academic excellence.

What made her so sure of Vernon’s future success?

“He’s a smart kid and he’s around intelligent people who teach him to do the right thing,” Stevens-Robinson said. She nodded, then added, “I’m going to represent him all the way—I’m his grandmother.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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