Community-Based Schools: Educationally and Economically Essential

Published May 1, 1997

African-American children in public schools are failing in record numbers, crippling their futures and limiting their careers. For some African-American parents, doing nothing about the problem was not an option. They are working with churches and community organizations to create their own schools, where their children can be safe and secure a good education.

For the past twelve years, Dr. Joan Davis Ratteray has helped these schools with the organization she founded, the Institute for Independent Education in Washington, D.C. The Institute provides technical assistance and policy development to the schools and offers in-service workshops for teachers, administrators, and parents. She has established a database on independent community-based schools and is now developing a fund-raising program to increase the availability of tuition scholarships, to expand teacher training opportunities, and to enhance the institutional operation of the schools through facilities development and the update of equipment for libraries and laboratories.

Recently, Dr. Ratteray spoke with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What exactly are community-based schools and how many are there?

Ratteray: Community-based schools are schools primarily created by parents, community organizations, churches, or mosques that are primarily run and operated by African- Americans. Across the country, there are over 400 such schools serving 70,000 students.

When we first started, we looked at schools formed by Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, and Native-Americans, but in our formal study, about 96 percent of the schools we identified as community-based schools are African-American, though we do list many of the others in our directory.

Clowes: Why did these schools get started, since public schools were available everywhere?

Ratteray: These aren’t just schools that were created recently. They go back to the 1790s. African-Americans were not treated well in the common schools, especially in the Boston area, and of course there was tremendous segregation in the South. As you come up to the Civil War, the schools were run by a lot of independent groups, including churches, with some of them going underground. At the turn of the century, various civic, community, and fraternal organizations owned many of these independent schools, which included at least a hundred high schools. There was a surge just before World War II, and a drop as people came back from the war, expecting changes in access to the public schools. Then, after the 1954 civil rights decision, you had a very big dip because people thought it was time to give up these schools and go into the mainstream. That started a really contentious debate with public schools and the African-Americans in them.

Clowes: Before 1954 these community-based schools flourished and had a long history?

Ratteray: That’s right. Then in the late 1960s there was a big African-American teacher protest about the lack of a nurturing environment in public schools and the lack of community control. A lot of those teachers left to start schools in New York and in Oakland and Los Angeles. On top of that, the public schools swelled their special education classes with African- Americans in the ’70s and the ’80s, which disillusioned a lot of parents who felt their children were not getting a fair shake. So they went to their churches and their community organizations and opened their own schools.

Clowes: So many African-American parents don’t feel that their children are being challenged in the public schools?

Ratteray: They felt that the curriculum really didn’t include them, or their history. Back in the 1930s, some of the schools had tried to get the curriculum more in tune with the history and culture of the African-American students. Then you have a real breakout in the 1960s with the Black Power movement. Even today, there continues to be a real disillusionment with what the government schools are offering many of these communities, and so families have responded by developing their own institutional base for schooling.

Clowes: These are private schools, then. How are they paid for?

Ratteray: Yes, they are private schools. The parents and the grandparents pay for them, with very little help from corporate philanthropy or from the government. Families pay for these schools themselves. They make the effort to pay because the schools were developed out of a real social, or cultural, or academic need. The Institute is now looking at the financial stability of these schools as the ideas of charter schools, vouchers, and corporate philanthropy have come to the fore. In fact, we just released a study called How Much Is Too Much? where we look at these policy alternatives and how they impact the independent community-based schools. This whole idea of whether you can be independent and still reach into the coffers of the tax base is a real serious question because along with the tax money comes less independence.

Clowes: Do have any thoughts on specific school reforms that are developing right now?

Ratteray: Unfortunately, I think all of them use the energy and motivation of the grassroots to spearhead a political answer to financial woes, and that political answer often does not take into consideration the infrastructure of the community. An example would be in Milwaukee, where we had a very strong parent group to start the debate. This group had been with the independent schools for a long time. Then outsiders came in to develop another parent group, which pretty much usurped the original group. I think that part of the public policy debate must be: How do you keep the community knitted together through this whole reform process–so that you don’t disturb the delicate balance of a schooling environment that nurtures their families?

Clowes: Do you have any evidence that vouchers or charter schools could actually harm the community-based schools?

Ratteray: We’ve looked at several schools that have gone from an independent status to charter status or to use vouchers. In some cases, the mandates were helpful and in others they were quite hostile.

There’s also the unfulfilled promise of corporate philanthropy–how the private sector is helping usher in a public policy idea for vouchers by giving money to families to go to these schools. But at the same time they are ignoring the other side of the equation, which is the infrastructure that these schools have built in the community.

Clowes: What challenges lie ahead for these schools?

Ratteray: I think that the biggest problem now is that we are going into a technological age, where the low to moderate tuition that has kept many of these schools going is not going to be enough. There will have to be a different funding base, or at least a more collaborative funding base, to keep the schools up-to-date with teacher training, curriculum, and accreditation.

I think that charters, vouchers, and corporate philanthropy must be looked at as public policy partners in developing that funding base. But it has to be done in such a way that we respect the institutional integrity and the family motivation of how these smaller community-based schools were created in the first place.

Clowes: What about the performance of these schools?

Ratteray: We have done one major study, called On the Road to Success, using a commercial standardized test that many of the public schools use. The students in the community-based schools scored above the norm–60 to 70 percent, which was very good.

We also looked at the alumni–who their children were, where did they go after they left these schools, how did they do, and how the environment compared to a public school environment. What we found was that these schools have been tremendous feeders to better schools.

Clowes: I recall reading that the Cleveland voucher program was actually costing the Catholic schools money rather than being a windfall.

Ratteray: Exactly. And the same thing with the new approach in New York where Mayor Giuliani has an outreach to Catholic schools. What has been interesting is that there has been very little outreach to independent black schools in that very same area–even though that is one of the major areas for independent community-based schools. There are about 75 to 100 in the New York metropolitan area.

Clowes: Why do you think that the public schools serve African-Americans so poorly?

Ratteray: Well, they were not created for African-American students. It was the common school idea that had a very strong history of normalizing Protestant expectations in a public school setting. So you don’t have the schools really designed to cater to, or to nurture, the African-American intellect–or anyone very different from the mainstream, for that matter.

When you have that situation, plus tremendous poverty, tremendous job dislocation, a sense of inner- city chaos, and city politics, you just don’t have much to make the education of the black child a priority. You do have huge amounts of special education money, but a lot of parents are disillusioned by that. They feel that their children have been placed onto a special education track from which they will never recover.

Clowes: What is the message about education that you would like to communicate to policy makers, journalists, and to our readers?

Ratteray: There is a tremendous need for our communities to be more organized and strategic in building institutions. Individually, you can help one family, or ten families, or a thousand families, but if you build institutions in the community, that helps the context which all families operate. That’s the first thing: Independent community-based schools as an essential part of the economic infrastructure necessary for financial viability of our communities.

The second thing is to work out local and regional, maybe even national, partnerships with these schools and their communities. We must complement their efforts by giving them the support and the resources that they need. But whatever is provided to families in terms of giving them back their tax money must be balanced with the support given to the infrastructure that’s already in place.

For more information about The Institute for Independent Education, write to 1313 North Capitol Street NE, Washington, DC 20006. Phone 202/745-0500, fax 202/745-9298, [email protected]