Kuumba Academy Charter School in Wilmington feels like any other elementary school. A banner in the foyer reads “welcome.” Paper chains hang here and there. Inspirational words are posted on the walls. Children laugh in the halls, and teachers chat while leaning on the front desk. A few parents—yes, parents—come and go.
But in so many ways, Kuumba is anything but another elementary school. With no library in their building, the students walk up the street to Wilmington Public Library. They march to the Walnut Street YMCA for gym class and swimming. They stroll two blocks up Market Street for dance class at Christina Cultural Arts Center and cross the street to study at the Delaware History Center. With the city as its campus, elementary school feels, in one sense, more like college.
And the kids work as hard as some college students. They have homework. Every. Single. School night. And, often, on weekends. Their teachers work just as hard—Saturdays and summer days, too. And those parents not only visit the campus regularly but also are required to help there, at least 30 hours a year.
Not that anyone minds. It’s what everyone signs on for when a student is accepted at Kuumba. Because Kuumba kids—95 percent African-American, 90 percent from low-income households—succeed. For the past three years, they have met or exceeded standard measures of achievement in math and language arts, and in many disciplines, they have soared over the state averages for student performance. Kuumba alumni have gone on to perform well everywhere from regular public high schools to Cab Calloway School of the Arts to top-ranked Wilmington Charter to exclusive privates like Tower Hill.
So without stating that it has something to prove, Kuumba does, indeed, have something to prove: Given the support and guidance, certain populations can rock any academic challenge you throw
“Kuumba defies myths about urban people, urban families, what they will and will not do,” says founding board member Raye Jones Avery. “When people feel they have ownership, they will be involved.”
Kuumba grew out of a desire among parents of students and preschoolers at Christina Cultural Arts Center in Wilmington to avoid sending their kids out of the city to their “feeder pattern” public schools, where they’d have to take their lumps on the quality of education. An advisory group of parents, educators and elected officials formed, then drafted a charter that would make Kuumba the only elementary school in the state whose focus was integrating the arts into the disciplines of math, science, language arts and social studies. It was also the first school to partner formally with a community nonprofit.
From left to right: Fifth-graders Orrin Stanford, Ramata Diallo and Zaire Jenkins; Head of school Sally Maldonado helps Saniyah Pinder with her studies; Second-grader Jahim Ibrahim
Approved with five other schools in the state’s second wave of charters, in 1998, Kuumba’s board and supporters spent the better part of two years raising money for a new building. The first group of 121 students, kindergartners through fourth-graders, walked into 519 N. Market for the first time in September 2001.
Over the next six years, teachers struggled to find a rhythm while five heads of school came and went. Some took the job only to learn it was more than they bargained for. One of the most effective returned to his hometown in Pennsylvania to help an under-served population there. One of the most beloved passed away after a struggle with cancer. Academic performance flagged, with only 49 percent of its 240 students meeting proficiency standards in reading or math in 2007.
“That was the tipping point,” says head of school Sally Maldonado. Then dean for academics, Maldonado and her team knew they had to take swift, drastic action. For help, they turned to the Vision Network of Delaware, a nonprofit that provides professional development to schools. “They told us, ‘We understand you want to tackle the whole world right now, but you can’t really do it that way,’” Maldonado says. So the school picked one area to focus its improvement efforts on: math.
At the time, the Delaware Math and Science Foundation was looking to pilot a new instructional program called Singapore Math. The series of math books, originally written in British English, had been used in its technologically advanced home country for 25 years, with outstanding results, and a U.S. publisher was looking to grow a market for them here. Kuumba, known as a school that was willing to take risks, jumped on board.
A professor trained in the program traveled in to give Kuumba teachers 40 hours of intensive instruction on the curriculum, then returned for monthly follow-ups with teachers on Saturdays. The teachers started bringing in parents three times a year to show them how to tutor their children. And the kids worked hard. The school chose a mathematician of the day, and students and teachers celebrated every success. “Everything we did around school was math-centered for that first year,” says teacher Samantha Connell. The result: in three years, 86 percent of its students were meeting state proficiency standards.
The next year, Kuumba took a similar approach to improving its reading program, with equally stunning results. The science program is the next target. And always on the hunt for a better way, Kuumba will soon begin teaching a math program known as EngageNY, which orients the Singapore Math principles toward the new Common Core curriculum adopted by the Delaware Department of Education.
From left to right: First-grader Marley Saunders enjoys lunch her way; Malachi Lyons (center) tells his mother, Tahira Lyons, he’d prefer to go to school on snow days. He is pictured with fellow second-grader Mekhi Boone and teacher Danielle Abou-Samra; Fifth graders participate in a period called crew, an exercise in character building and relating positively with others.
The rigor applies equally to character building and cultural awareness. Part of that character building comes through formal class periods such as “crew,” where fifth-graders examine their thoughts and feelings in order to know themselves better so that they might relate better with others. Since the program was implemented, Maldonado says, disciplinary actions have dropped significantly. And Connell says teachers gain a better insight into the students’ home lives in ways that help them better serve the kids. African-American heritage is studied through the arts, Avery says, and knowing that culture helps make the kids agents of change in their communities.
“Our teachers never stop trying,” says sixth-grader William Laws, who started at Kuumba in first grade. “They make sure we’re ready for the next thing.” Lessons he has learned during crew, he says, have helped prevent him from responding angrily to insults from others, and the program has taught him how to set goals. By reading the novel “Red Scarf Girl,” he learned about the Cultural Revolution in China, which has helped him to see the China of the present in a new way and helped shaped his perspective on respect. “We’re never just learning,” William says. “We’re learning how to get smarter.”
His brother, second-grader Harper Laws, is blending his academic work with his love of baseball by writing a biography of Babe Ruth. He believes he’s ready to tackle the multiplication tables, and he looks forward to his younger brother, Nate, joining him and William at the school next year. “When my smaller brother goes, I can finally watch somebody, like William watched me,” Harper says. “Nate already knows some of my friends.”
The family atmosphere at the school is also key to its success. It is deliberately cultivated through frequent family movie nights, low-price dinner nights, Take A Parent to School Day and other activities. And it celebrated with a Family of the Month Award.
Maldonado grew up in local Catholic schools, where students knew each other well, so “that family feeling feels good,” she says. But unlike the schools of her youth, with a one-size-fits-all approach that sometimes left struggling students struggling, Kuumba teachers take the time to identify issues and work with students one on one, even on Saturday mornings.
Howard Laws, father of William, Harper and Nate—as well as the school’s part-time family liaison—notes that, without Kuumba, his boys would have attended some of the lowest-performing public schools in the county. In a home that values education as a means to success and learning as a valuable exercise in its own right, the school is perfect for the family.
“There’s no such thing as scheduling a parent-teacher conference,” Laws says. “If I need to speak with someone, I can walk right into school. If my son is doing math homework and I don’t understand it, I can get a tutorial right from
one of the teachers.”
Parent Tahira Lyons, whose two Kuumba students also would have attended low-performing schools, points out that teachers send home weekly lesson plans so parents can plan their own homework, and they’ll refer her to educational websites and other resources to help her brush up. She also notes that Kuumba has done wonders for her young son’s confidence. Shy by nature, he asked his mother if he could testify to the Department of Education when Kuumba’s charter was up for renewal last year, just like
his big sister did.
Of the six schools chartered in 1998, only Kuumba and two others are still in business. The state yanked the charters of the under-performing schools—though traditional public schools that perform as poorly stay in business. Kuumba avoided the same fate by recognizing problems and correcting them before the state could penalize it. Noticing its academic improvement, Howard Career Center and the Brandywine School District have implemented Singapore Math in all schools. Kuumba has succeeded so well, in fact, that even though it will take on 150 new students and add a seventh grade next year, there still isn’t enough space for all the families who want to be part of it.
“In the community, the school represents hope for the city of Wilmington,” Avery says. “There’s a hope that we can have good schools. It represents an example that urban kids can be scholars and have high personal achievement.”
Avery believes that, among other reasons for Kuumba’s success, including parental involvement, two are of special note. One is that Kuumba nurtures city kids in a protected environment until they need to face the big, bad world of middle school and beyond. The other is the school’s partnership with Christina Cultural Arts Center, where she has served as executive director for more than 20 years. “I’m adamant that a single charter school, to be successful, should be aligned with an experienced partner,” Avery says. She points to Wilmington Charter, which, with the resources of Red Clay School District behind it, has become the best public high school in the state.
But success is a double-edged sword. Kuumba will start the 2014-15 school year with three other top-notch charters in the new Community Education Building on North French Street. That puts the students in the center of corporate America, where they’ll see their mentors and other professionals going to work at great companies every day, and it gives them all-new resources. It gives teachers access to others for sharing ideas and practices, especially as all students and educators learn how to meet Common Core standards. And it gives more room to grow the student body.
But the move has also raised the fear among some African-Americans in the city, voiced at Wilmington City Council meetings and elsewhere, that Kuumba will forget where it came from, that the kids it was established to serve may eventually get left behind.
Avery says that will never happen.
“We’re grounded,” she says. “We founded the school for a very specific purpose: to give advantages to kids who didn’t have them, advantages that every child deserves.”
“My kids will say, ‘It’s supposed to snow? Can’t you just drop us off at school?’” says Lyons. “They love it. They love the school. They love their teachers.
“I don’t know how they engage those kids,” she laughs. “But it works.”