Community-Based Schools: Educationally and Economically Essential
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
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
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
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
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
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
Clowes: What about the performance of
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
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
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@example.com