Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal's Triumph in the Inner City

Jack Byers

Dr. Ben Chavis with Carey Blakely
New American Library
September 2009

Part biography, part case study, and part pep talk, this book tells the story of the wildly successful American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) and its charismatic, take-no-prisoners, leader, Ben Chavis. As readers of Fordham’s Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism already know, Chavis took over AIPCS in 2000, at which point the school was failing in many ways. He faced rampant drug usage, 65 percent attendance, the lowest test scores in Oakland, CA, and the imminent threat of closure. He promptly fired the entire faculty and staff and instituted a new educational model--now called AIM-Ed--focused on “high expectations,” “free market capitalism,” “family culture,” and “accountability and structure.” In his first year, he raised attendance to 95 percent and by 2003-04, AIPSC had the best scores of any public middle school in Oakland, never mind its heavily minority and impoverished student body. But if this turnaround can be called a miracle, so too can the length of Chavis’ tenure. He is, to say the least, unorthodox, provocative, and politically incorrect. Throughout the book, as at the school, he seems to intentionally provoke those who might disagree with him, claiming that Democrats “pimp” poor people and calling one school board member “part of those far-to-the-left liberals who in my opinion are worse than the Ku Klux Klan.” His disciplinary methods have been extravagant, not to say extreme. He motivates students by calling them (among other things) “darkies” and “half-breeds.” He fought low attendance by hiring drug dealers to watch for truants and threatening to withhold parents’ welfare checks. The book proudly recounts all this as evidence of Chavis’s rest-of-the-world-be-damned commitment to academic achievement, but it also poses an important question: Just how far are we willing to go to raise children’s test scores? The book can be purchased here.