At historic Black Panthers school, Black teachers were key to student success
on December 15, 2016
In 1973, the Black Panther Party opened an elementary school in an old church on International Boulevard. At its peak, The Oakland Community School (OCS) served around 160 students, and relied on a combination of grants and private donations to give it total autonomy: the Panthers hired whom they pleased, taught how they wanted, and won awards doing it.
When the party disbanded in 1982, the school shut its doors. But a generation of its alumni still live—and to hear them tell it, thrive—in Oakland.
Kesha Hackett is one of them. She works in a swanky high-rise on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, overseeing human resources for an insurance company and studying for her masters degree in business management. Her fellow alumnus, Gregory Lewis, is a personal injury lawyer in downtown Oakland. They rattle off names of other classmates: They are successful teachers, doctors and musicians.
Both Hackett and Lewis are adamant that their early education at OCS was instrumental in shaping the trajectory of their lives. “I meditate on this,” said Lewis. “Sometimes I think I would have been a statistic, being born to a 17-year-old mom in East Oakland. Those project schools were hard.”
“If I didn’t go to OCS,” Kesha echoed, “I think my life would have been more destructive. You can be influenced by stressors … like gangs, drugs, whatever. But knowledge of self kept me grounded.”
There were many reasons why the school was special to its students. Student teacher ratios were 10:1. By contrast, student ratios in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) today are 24:1. Age did not determine what grade students were placed in—ability did. And in typical fashion for the Panthers, whose free breakfast program inspired the nation’s version, students ate three home-cooked meals a day.
But one aspect of the school sticks out to former students and teachers alike: the powerful presence of Black teachers. According to Lewis and Hackett, having teachers who were mostly Black created an atmosphere of pride, confidence and understanding that was infectious. Acutely cognizant of their own experiences within public schools, teachers also took special care keep racial bias from influencing discipline.
“I used to talk a lot,” said Lewis. “I had a lot of energy. But they never told me to stop squirming or stop asking questions the way maybe another teacher would have.”
Being Black also gave students and teachers a common cultural language through which to communicate and learn. For example, Hackett said, she learned her order of operations by playing Double Dutch. “We’d be on the playground and one of us would go in: ‘Please! Excuse! My Dear Aunt Sally!’” Hackett said. “I still remember it.” By the time she got to middle school, Hackett was two grades ahead in math.
A growing body of academic evidence corroborates what Hackett and Lewis intuitively know: Black children benefit enormously from having Black teachers. One reason is that Black teachers seem to see Black children as smarter than their white colleagues do.
One 2008 study from the London School of Economics found that white teachers graded elementary students of color more harshly than white students, even when external test scores were the same. According to the study, teachers of all races grade students of their own race more positively, even for subjects generally thought to be more objective, like math. However, in the 2008 study, white teachers gave much lower scores to Black and Hispanic children than Black or Hispanic teachers gave to white children, driving the majority of the difference.
In the study, lead researcher Amine Ouazzad wrote that this form of grading discrimination could explain up to 22 percent of the achievement gap between white students and students of color at the elementary school level.
Another study from researchers at John Hopkins published in 2015 found that Black teachers are 40 percent more likely to believe a Black student will graduate high school than non-Black teachers who evaluate the same student. According to Nicholas Papageorge, co-author of the study, teachers may convey these expectations explicitly or implicitly to students, causing some to internalize them in a vicious cycle of self-creating prophecy.
In a famous 1968 experiment by Harvard psychology professor Robert Rosenthal and San Francisco elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson, this is exactly what happened. The researchers showed teachers fake test scores, which were assigned to students at random. At the end of the year, the students who had been labeled “advanced” showed greater growth. These results, known as the “Pygmalian Effect” after the mythical Greek sculptor who fell in love with the statue he carved, have been repeated many times. The opposite, known as the “Golem Effect,” has also been replicated: When teachers hold negative beliefs about students, they perform worse, regardless of their initial ability.
By contrast, Hackett and Lewis said their teachers at OCS filled them with a sense of boundless potential. Hackett recalled a song they used to sing called “We Can Do Anything,” and repeated a few bars:
We can do anything
Because anything is possible you see
we can live forever and make peace like it should be
we can turn the tide and the wind
and even make life begin again.
“I learned I came from kings and queens,” Hackett said as she placed her hand over her heart.
Black Panthers leaders created OCS because they felt there was a void of educational opportunity for Black students in Oakland. During the 1960s and ‘70s, students in the OUSD had some of the lowest test scores in the country, scoring in the 12th percentile in reading and the 16th in math in 1977 on the California Test of Basic Skills.
According to Huey Newton, who founded the Black Panther Party with Bobby Seale in 1966, Black achievement lagged behind because the school system had failed to teach Black students about themselves. In his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, Newton wrote: “During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience. Not one instructor ever awoke in me a desire to learn more or to question or to explore the worlds of literature, science, and history. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process nearly killed my urge to inquire.”
By the time Newton graduated from Oakland Technical Institute in 1959, he could barely read and had been suspended over 30 times.
Childhood experiences like these inspired the Black Panthers to reimagine education. In 1966, the party released its Ten Point program– a list of demands the Panthers believed must be met in order for Blacks to live free and fruitful lives in the United States. Point Five defined the Panthers’ vision for what schools should be: “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want an education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.”
In practical terms, this began with an education that affirmed Black identity. As Newton said in an interview that aired on the TV show Rebop in 1978, it was only after he taught himself to read that he began to gain such an understanding. “As I grew older and learned about our true history–that Africa before its conquest was a beautiful cultured country, and we had great universities in Timbuktu–I started to look at myself and get a new interest in education,” Newton told his interviewer, 8-year-old Kelitta Smith, an alumnae of OCS who later went on to become an actress best known for her role as Wanda McCullough in The Bernie Mac Show.
The Intercommunal Youth Institute (IYI) was the first Panther-run school to actualize Point Five. Founded in 1971, it served as a haven for Panther children whose parents’ activism often led to the kids being picked on in regular schools. Attached dormitories also provided a stable base for children whose parents’ homes were frequently raided by the police at that time.
Between 1973 and 1975, Panthers leaders Elaine Brown and Bobby Seale ran for political office in Oakland. Lewis said he and other neighborhood children actively participated, knocking on doors and passing out pamphlets for Seale during his 1973 bid for mayor. Seale ultimately lost the race, coming in second in a field of nine candidates, with 43,749 votes to incumbent Mayor John Reading’s 77,634 votes. However Seale’s campaign gave IYI broader community recognition, and in turn, financial support. Brown’s campaigns for city council in 1973 and 1975 did the same.
By 1974, the Panthers were able to purchase an old Baptist church on International Boulevard for $250,000. They changed the name of the Intercommunal Youth Institute to the Oakland Community School the following year. The name change cemented its identity as a fixture in the city that welcomed everyone, regardless of race or Panther membership, although the school continued to serve mainly Black students.
While OCS was a private school in the sense that it did not rely exclusively on funding from the state, it was public in the sense that its doors were open to all regardless of wealth. Those who could paid a monthly $25 fee. The rest of its operating budget came from a combination of grants, party fundraising and private contributions, which were tax-exempt since they flowed to the Educational Opportunities Corporation, a non-profit established by Brown, minister of information and later chairwoman of the Black Panther Party.
A memo from school director Ericka Huggins dated in 1979 calculated that it cost approximately $65,000 a month to run OCS. According to the document, the majority of this income came from government funding. Yet at the same time, the FBI continued to harass the Black Panthers, whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called “without a question …. [the] greatest threat to internal the security of the United States.” In particular, the FBI found the Panthers’ free breakfast program to be a threat to their efforts to disrupt the party, because it made people see the Panthers in a positive light, and gave them a ready audience of “impressionable youths.”
Today Huggins says the reason for this contrast is that the feds couldn’t see the positive effect the Panthers were having in Oakland the same way the local or state government did. In 1977, the state Department of Education sent deputy superintendent William Whiteneck to visit the school. He declared it a “model” elementary school. Many other mainstream politicians in Oakland and California repeated the endorsement.
The curriculum at OCS was standard for American schools: students took math, English, history, art, and Spanish. “You won’t find a very politicized curriculum,” said Huggins, in reference to the files from the school that are stored in the Huey P. Newton archives at Stanford University.
A reporter from JET magazine who visited the school in 1980 didn’t, writing that they were surprised to find students reading Western classics like Animal Farm and Jonathon Livingston Seagull. Lesson plans from the time period show similarly ordinary content. “Have students touch the ball while saying ‘B’ sound,” instructs one phonics lesson from the Stanford archives.
Far more than content, “what made the difference,” said Huggins “was the person teaching it.”
Huggins became the school’s director in 1973. A self-described lifelong teacher, Huggins had been a member of the party in Los Angeles, when her husband, chapter leader John Huggins, and BPP member Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter were murdered in January 1969 by members of a rival Black nationalist group, US Organization. In his doctoral dissertation on COINTELPRO, Newton alleges that the FBI not only stoked the two groups existing hostility, but actively participated in the murder of Huggins and Carter.
Aware that they were being infiltrated by the FBI, the Black Panthers sought to discover and eliminate informants. In May, 1969, members of the party accused a man named Alex Rackley of passing information to the FBI and tortured and murdered him in a New Haven swamp. During the resulting trial, one defendant accused Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins of ordering the murder. Both Seale and Huggins were arrested and tried in a separate trial. During the trial, Huggins spent two years in prison, some of them in solitary confinement where she taught herself to meditate. In a surprise to many who did not expect two Black revolutionaries to get a fair trial in America, the Connecticut jury acquitted both Seale and Huggins.
Still reeling from her ordeal, Huggins moved to Oakland with her 2-year-old daughter to continue the organizing work that she and her husband had begun. She was running OCS shortly thereafter.
According to Huggins, the students learned more than their peers in Oakland’s public schools at the time because they were able to see themselves in their teachers. “Teachers must be a mirror of family members,” she said.
The staff at OCS was mostly Black. But Huggins noted that while race was an important factor to consider when hiring teachers, it was not the only one. More important to Huggins was a teachers’ willingness to reflect on their assumptions and grow. Huggins said her teachers—including those who were white, Latina, and Asian—met regularly to investigate their own implicit biases so they did not convey them to their students.
“Were Africans slaves or were they enslaved?” Huggins said her staff would discuss. “What was the culture before? Was it a poor culture or a thriving culture? When we think about Europe, isn’t it a collection of countries with huge populations of people of color? When we talk about freedom, what do we mean? Do we not have freedom within us no one can take away?”
Lewis recalled that his favorite teacher was white, a science instructor named Chris Doughtry who taught Lewis about how ants could lift several times their body weight.
“I liked that,” said Lewis, grinning, “because I was kind of small.”
“It didn’t matter that Chris was white,” said Huggins. “What mattered was he was a human being showing up for human children.”
That said, for Lewis, having so many role models who were Black males helped keep his behavior on track. “In my situation, I sometimes acted out because my biological father wasn’t around,” said Lewis. “When I did meet him, he came back married to a white Canadian lady. I ran to the back of the house and cried.”
In class, Lewis said this emotional period manifested in him talking out of turn and getting in trouble for it. Lewis said he was lucky to have Black male mentors in the classroom, like Steve McCutcheon, who taught math and martial arts, to help him through it.
According to Lewis, these teachers were understanding about his problems at home. Huggins said teachers often knew about issues because the community was so close-knit, and many parents were affiliated with—if not in—the party. “If someone’s parent got arrested the night before, it was likely we already knew,” she said.
Lewis said if a student was acting out in class, a teacher would take them out into the hall for a conversation. “There was this mantra,” said Lewis: Be calm, cool, and collected. And students had the ultimate role model of equanimity: Huey Newton, whose good looks and outlaw charisma made him the rock star of the party.
“We all wanted to be cool like Huey,” said Lewis. “He was like this walking, talking, breathing God.”
But Lewis said his teachers reacted swiftly if a student did something out of line. Sometimes students were referred to the Justice Committee, a group of peers who listened to the student’s offense and issued them a consequence known as a “correction.” In the footage of OCS aired on Rebop, the Justice Committee can be seen telling a student that because she didn’t do her homework, she won’t get any free time. “You know we’re giving you this correction because we love you,” one of the young committee members tells her.
If the correction failed, the student might be sent up the chain of command. “The place you didn’t want to go was Donna’s office,” Lewis said of Director Donna Howell, whom Lewis described as ferociously loving as she was intimidating. “She was like my second mama,” Lewis said. “But you did not mess with her.”
Still, Lewis said, at no point was there any concept of “bad black boys” at OCS, which academic researchers say may be motivating the disproportionate use of discipline on Black students. In the 2014-2015 school year, Black students made up 28 percent of the public school population in Oakland, but 58 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. Lewis said he believes part of the reason why Black students are suspended at such disproportionately high rates today is because there is a “cultural disconnect” between students and teachers who may not share the student’s background.
New research from UC Santa Barbara published last year seems to agree with Lewis’ analysis. According to the study, Black teachers are significantly less likely to label a student as disruptive than white teachers who assess the same student. According to principal researcher Adam Wright, this may true be because disruptiveness is a culturally defined pattern of behavior. A Black teacher’s definition may not be the same as a white teacher’s. The policy implications of this study could be huge; Wright estimates that doubling the exposure of Black students to Black teachers would cut the Black-white suspension gap in half.
Another problem, researchers say, is that talented students may be overlooked by teachers who don’t share their ethnicity. According to a 2016 study published by Jason A. Grissom and Christopher Redding in the peer-reviewed online journal of the American Educational Research Association, Black students are twice as likely to be assigned to gifted programs when they are evaluated by Black teachers than when they are evaluated by white teachers, even when they test equally high as their non-Black peers.
Lewis said something similar happened to him. After what Lewis described as many happy years at OCS, his mother decided to move the family to Hayward. According to Lewis, she was concerned about crime in Oakland, and no longer identified with the Black Panther Party. Academically, the transition was easy. “The only thing I didn’t know was the Pledge of Allegiance,” said Lewis.
But behaviorally, Lewis began to struggle. He was two years younger than his new classmates because he had skipped several levels at OCS, where students were grouped by ability, not age. According to Lewis, he was immature then—talkative and “squirrelly,” as he put it. While some of his new white teachers seemed to appreciate his intelligence, others, like his band director, seemed to misunderstand it.
“I went from being the star Black pupil, to the only one,” he said. “I went from being in the first chair for trumpet, to the back chair, to woodshop.”
“Looking back on it, I was depressed,” said Lewis. Leaving the family of teachers that understood him so well mentally and emotionally, he said, “felt like death.”
Hackett’s memories of the Oakland Community School are about feeling empowered and curious.
Just as having numerous Black male teachers seemed to make a lasting impression on Lewis, so, too, did having so many Black female leaders on Hackett. There was no shortage of them; while women were active in all aspects of the Black Panther Party, the school was one area in which they took center stage and were widely recognized for it. “They were hip and smart and dressed so well!” Hackett said. “There was this attitude: you had to look good to feel good.” At OCS, students learned to do both, taking personal hygiene classes and strutting their stuff in fashion shows right alongside participating in spelling, math and Black History competitions.
There was more to feeling good than just grooming and fashion. Hackett recalled that at one point, she had a male substitute teacher who looked at her and her friends in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Hackett told Huggins, and the next day the substitute was gone. This experience made a lasting impression on Hackett, she said, because it taught her that women did not have to put up with bad behavior from men. From that early age, Hackett learned she had power to control her environment.
Hackett also remembered the emphasis on critical thinking that her teachers cultivated in her, which they accomplished through a Socratic teaching style. Teachers asked students a series of questions that allowed them to arrive at their own answers, and encouraged students to ask just as many. “We weren’t taught what to think, but how to think,” said Hackett.
Like Lewis, Hackett experienced a profound sense of loss when she left OCS, moving to Glenview, California, for middle school. Hackett said she hadn’t realized until then that there was anything special about OCS, but she started to get a clue when her new classmates made fun of her for constantly raising her hand.
“I was taught to ask as many questions as I wanted to make sure I had really understood the problem for myself,” said Hackett, but it was clear not everyone had received the same message.
She also had no problem contradicting authority. When Hackett’s teacher told them that Christopher Columbus had discovered America, Hackett again raised her hand. “See, I knew that wasn’t true,” said Hackett. “I told the class that actually the indigenous people had been here first.”
Hackett’s parents were called in to the school for a meeting with the teacher. Although they were divorced, they both came. Hackett said her teacher, who was also a Black man, told her parents they were going to have to teach her “how to play the game.”
“I had a number of Black teachers in middle school who kind of took me aside and told me, out here, I was getting graded on what I could regurgitate,” she said. Hackett said she made the adjustment at school, but her parents continued to supplement her education at home. Her father would give her books like Gordon Park’s autobiography The Choice of Weapons, which explained how the famous photographer decided to pick up a camera rather than guns or knives to express his fury about economic injustice. Then Hackett’s father would take her for a sundae so they could discuss the ideas she had read about.
But even as she was retooling her weapons of learning, Hackett said she never lost her sense of confidence. The love and encouragement so many Black teachers had shown her at an early age had already made its mark. “I carry that with me throughout my life,” she said.
It is far less common today to find a Black teacher at the front of a classroom than it was in 1970. Nationally, 8 percent of the teaching force is made up of Black teachers, while Black students make up 16 percent of the public school population. For male teachers, the rate is lower: only 2 percent of teachers are Black men.
In Oakland, the numbers are reflective of the greater ethnic diversity of cities: In the 2014 to 2015 school year, Black teachers made up about 19 percent of the teaching force in the OUSD, while Black students made up 27 percent of the public school population.
Numbers for Hispanic students, who also experience discrimination in grading and discipline from white teachers, face a far starker gap. According to data from the California Department of Education, Hispanic students made up the largest ethnic group of Oakland public schools at 43 percent. But people who identify as Hispanic make up just 2.4 percent of their teachers.
Tara Gard oversees teacher recruitment and retention within the school district. She, like many other talent recruiters nationwide, considers getting more teachers of color in the classroom to be a top priority. Gard sees having more teachers of color in the classroom as a benefit to all children, including white children, who she said need a counterexample to the stereotypes they see in society about people of color.
“You need African American males and females in front of you [in the classroom] who are caring for you, so you have that balance,” she said. “Children need to know … [people] aren’t everything you see on social media or news.”
But recruiters like Gard are fighting an uphill battle to keep and find educators of color.
According to the Albert Shanker Institute, a non-profit that researches public education and labor, Black teachers have lost their jobs at astounding rates over the past decade in some of America’s biggest cities. Many of these departures were produced by mass layoffs as urban school districts sought to close failing schools. In other cases, cities opened their doors to charter schools, which brought in more white teachers from out of town.
For example, according to the Shanker Institute, the Black teaching force in San Francisco shrank by 32 percent between 2002 and 2012. In New Orleans, it shrank by 62 percent over same time period.
At the same time, it is getting harder to entice new candidates of any race or gender into the profession. According to the Learning Policy Institute, an independent research organization, in California, enrollment in teaching programs has fallen 70 percent over the last decade.
A new report from the San Francisco Teacher Residency, a non-profit that supports new teachers, said a host of factors contribute to why it is difficult to recruit and retain Black and Latino teachers not just in the Bay Area, but nationwide. Some of these reasons include prohibitive teaching exams like the PRAXIS, which Black and Latino candidates pass at lower rates, and a desire on the part of teachers of color to not participate in institutions some perceive as white-dominated and oppressive.
In the Bay Area, affordability of the profession is a major negative factor. In 2014, the National Institute on Teacher Quality reported that Oakland teachers’ salaries ranked 120 out of 125 nationally when cost of living was factored in. According to a special project from the San Francisco Chronicle published this May examining the affordability of teaching, Oakland teachers make on average of $58,000, but spend 41 percent of their income on rent—a proportion 11 percentage points over what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban development defines as “affordable.”
By contrast, OCS teachers did not have to pass a state-exam to get hired, and, according to Huggins, were a part of a community that supported one another. The financial strain of the profession, however, was always present: teachers at OCS were paid mostly on a living stipend, and often put in long extra hours to help their students. One teacher recalled driving his car for two hours before school started to pick up students as far away as San Francisco every day. Huggins herself said she opted to collect welfare for a time rather than pay herself a salary.
“Have you ever done something before for no money, just because you loved to do it?” Huggins asked an audience recently at a panel discussion about the school during the Black Panther Party’s 50th Anniversary in Oakland this October. Nearly everyone in the audience raised their hands.
“Oh, good,” Huggins said with a smile. “Me, too.”
By 1979, the school was in financial distress. In a communication to Newton, Huggins wrote that they needed to come up with $100,000 over the next three months to keep the school running. But that $100,000 was nowhere to be found. By that late stage in the Black Panther Party’s life, many members were in jail, in exile or dead. Those who remained fought over the direction of the party and disillusioned members left, leaving behind a small cadre who simply did not have the manpower to raise money the way they had in the past. Lewis said there was a rumor that Newton, who by then had a severe drug problem, was skimming money from the school.
In 1982, OCS graduated its last class of fifth graders. Huggins continued to work in education, teaching incarcerated youth the same meditation methods that helped her endure her two years of imprisonment, and leading a number of HIV/AIDS support programs in the Bay Area. She is currently a professor of sociology and African American studies at Peralta Community College.
Lewis and Hackett continued their journey through middle school and high school, going to college and pursuing advanced degrees. Although they both have good jobs and loving families, they still think about how their lives would be different if their entire education had continued in the way of OCS.
“Where would I be today if we [OCS] had had a middle school, and a high school?” Hackett wondered aloud. “What further heights would I have reached?”
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