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Teaching to the Spirit: The "Hidden" Curriculum of African American Education


Discussions about gaps in achievement and opportunity, educational debts, and educational inequities, point to the lingering salience and pernicious role of race in schools (Hilliard, 2003; Ladson Billings, 2006; Noguera, 2003). Yet, reforms are often characterized by a "quick-fix mentality and single-solution approach" (Lee, 2008, p. 208) that do not explicitly address racism nor attempt comprehensive shifts in approaches to education or schooling. Racial inequalities and racism, however, are historical issues African American youth and families have struggled with relative to education (Ladson Billings, 2006; Morris, 2002; Wells & Crain, 1997). In a post-Brown v. Board of Education context the periodic emergence of African American private, independent, and charter schools, and the myriad of reasons why African American families attend them and opt out of traditional public school options, should be a call to educators and educational researchers to rethink the "problems" of education, reconsider the impacts of schools on African American students' educational and non-educational well-being, and more deeply consider what types of social change are and are not possible through schools.

Culturally relevant pedagogies and curriculum (i.e. Afrocentric) claim to address issues of access, inclusion, and racism in schools by empowering "students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes" (Ladson Billings, 1992, p.382) to cultivate a strong academic base, and foster students' positive self-worth and racial and cultural identities (Asante, 1991; Ladson Billings, 1992; Mudhabuti & Mudhabuti, 1991); protective factors believed to help children cope with and combat racism (Boykin & Toms, 1985). This study examines the enactment and perceived impacts of such an approach through an in-depth examination a 31 year-old African American elementary school that has a racially diverse teaching faculty and over an 80% college-going rate by alumni.

Using ethnographic observations, surveys, and interviews, this study analyzes: 1) What are the pedagogical philosophies and practices within this school that are intended to challenge racism?; 2) How does racial socialization occur at this school?; and 3) What are alumni and parents' perceptions about the school's attempts to challenge racism and socialize students into positive racial identities? The analytical lenses of African-centered pedagogy (Lee, 2008) and racial socialization (Boykin & Toms, 1985) are employed to highlight the politically relevant pedagogical philosophies and practices enacted at this northern California school.

Findings indicate that parents and alumni positively evaluate the schools' philosophies of teaching to the "whole child," to the teaching style, and to the school's commitment to an expansive notion of Education. Specifically, parents and alumni perceived the greatest impact of the school as fostering a nurturing community, cultivating student responsibility and accountability, developing students' positive racial identities and tools to handle racism, elements perceived as affecting alumni's educational success and personal development. This study can help to inform the process of preparing and mentoring more culturally competent and politically relevant teachers and school leaders (King, 1991; Tatum, 1992); revolutionize policies around education and schooling; and more fully build upon the innate capacity and desire to learn of all children, particularly those who have been disserved by schools and society.

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