OAKLAND _ All-night study sessions aren't often associated with middle school, but 13-year-old Faviola Montes and her friends at the Oakland Charter Academy in East Oakland say they have fallen asleep on their textbooks more times than they'd like their parents to know about.
The work was so unrelenting, especially in the sixth grade, that Faviola said she almost left the Fruitvale-area charter school two years ago.
"I thought I wasn't going to make it," she said. "I was never used to hard work."
Multiply Faviola's experience by the roughly 600 students who attend one of the five local schools using a similar tough-love, academically obsessed educational model, and their soaring standardized-test scores appear less like a phenomenon and more like a formula that could be replicated elsewhere.
But that's not really happening. Not in Oakland, anyway.
The Oakland Charter Academy and American Indian charter schools have won national awards and drawn international attention. But some local educators and parents seem doubtful of the schools' main tenet: that through hard work, discipline and extra class time, poor students from Oakland, regardless of their previous academic record, can — and do — beat children from Piedmont, San Ramon and other affluent Bay Area school districts on state tests.
Some critics of the original American Indian Public Charter School, for example, attribute its rising math and reading scores with the increase in Asian-American student enrollment, even though the school's black and Latino children score just as well as their Asian peers. Others have discounted the school's achievements by speculating that it only recruits the top students from nearby elementary schools, or that low performers are banished just before testing season.
And at least one skeptic has publicly speculated that cheating must be taking place at the Oakland Charter Academy, which is more than 90 percent Latino. No testing irregularities have been found or reported, according to state education officials.
The Oakland Charter Academy — located in an old bank building on International Boulevard, next to a Goodwill store — scored 902 out of a possible 1,000 points this spring on the state's Academic Performance Index. That is 233 points above the statewide average of Latino middle-schoolers and more than 200 points above Oakland's middle school scores.
Jorge Lopez, an intense man with a booming voice who dropped out of high school before continuing his education, took over the East Oakland charter school in 2004 when its API score was 650. With guidance from Ben Chavis, the retired American Indian Public Charter School director, Lopez implemented a similar program in his school. It's now at work, in various forms, at Lopez's middle school in Fruitvale, at American Indian's charter middle school and high school in the Laurel District, and at the Chinatown campus that the two organizations share.
Chavis's successor, Janet Roberts, says the widespread skepticism of the schools' rising test scores — especially the references to the American Indian middle school's growing Asian population, when students of other ethnicities are testing equally well — speaks volumes about the educational establishment's expectations of low-income, black, Latino and Native American children.
"If that's what they really think, then why are they pretending to be fighting this battle?" Roberts said.
Over at Oakland Charter Academy, Lopez used a recent cheating allegation as motivational fodder. He posted bright fliers around the school with a quote from Jim Mordecai, a retired Oakland public school teacher and staunch charter school opponent, that read, "Either there is (cheating) at Oakland Charter Academy, or this is a magical school."
Reached last month to confirm his statement, Mordecai said he stood by his words. Considering the relative inexperience and high turnover of the charter academy's teaching staff, and its low-income student population — many of whom learned English as a second language — he said, "I can imagine only two possible explanations: cheating or magic."
A third explanation
Faviola and her classmates, who have spent the last two years cramming knowledge into their heads, offer a more mundane reason for their statistic-defying test scores: nonstop work.
In late September, the Oakland Charter Academy became the second public school in the city (after the American Indian Public Charter School) to receive a National Blue Ribbon Award from the United States Department of Education for its academic achievement.
Before the ceremony began, the students ate outside in the school's "lunchroom," under a makeshift canopy to block the rain and sun. When asked about the skeptics, they grew silent. After a pause, Marianna Cervantes said, "They should come to our school and see what we do."
As in the American Indian charter schools, Oakland Charter Academy students remain in the same classroom, with the same teacher, for most of the day, and — if the teacher stays on — for the following school year. There is no room for unfinished homework, tardiness, talking in class, cell phones at school, untucked shirts, or anything else that might distract students or slow them down. After-school detentions are easily earned.
Some of the children at the Oakland Charter Academy may be "second- and third-generation gangbangers," Lopez said, but they are still expected to read "Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" for homework.
"Every generation needs to move up," Lopez said. "How are we going to do it? We work the hell out of them."
Students have 90 minutes of English and 90 minutes of math each day, and some attend after-school and Saturday tutoring. Summer school is required, and the work only intensifies during so-called school holidays.
"When you have vacation, it's just like school, but you stay home," said Marcela Ortega, 14.
Two miles away, at the American Indian Public Charter School, 11-year-old Jessica Truong said she had gotten only a few hours of sleep the night before. She didn't start on her homework until late at night, she said, and turning in an incomplete assignment was out of the question.
"I need to get my homework done and get here on time, because if we don't get here on time we get detention," she said, her voice barely above a whisper, in the hallway outside of class. "If we get two detentions in one week we get Saturday school, and that's horrible."
Jessica, a sixth-grader, said she had wanted to go to a different public middle school this fall with some of her cousins and friends from elementary school. Her new school can be stressful, she said, especially when she watches too much TV on nights with a lot of homework. Still, she said, she doesn't want to transfer now. The school has brought out her competitive streak, and she feels like she's learning more than her cousins.
"It's like a little game," she said.
'A brain is a brain'
Nathan Robles, 19, graduated from the American Indian school and now tutors the charter school students in math. He said the students' abilities range widely, but that they ultimately grasp the material, for reasons obvious to anyone who visits the school. He said he is tired of hearing "excuses" for why the scores are so high.
"Why is that absurd? How can't that be done without cheating?" Robles asked. "In my opinion, a mind is a mind. A brain is a brain."
Chavis, the American Indian schools' polarizing former director, retired in the summer of 2007, though he is still involved (The school's Web site lists him as an "Advisor Emeritus"). Roberts, the mild-mannered, 28-year-old former teacher who took his place, said much of the media attention and controversy went out the door along without Chavis's outsize personality.
"Nobody cares about us now that he's gone," she said.
Many assumed that the academic success of the American Indian schools was personality-driven, Roberts said, but the program didn't lose its edge after Chavis left. The composite scores at the middle and high schools continued to rise under Roberts' watch, topping 950 out of 1,000 points last school year. Despite reports of "cherry-picking" the best students, she said, the school has accepted every applicant.
Roberts said a team of Australian educators plans to tour the school in January to learn more about the model. Late last month, a group of principals from Aspire Public Schools, an Oakland-based charter management organization, paid a visit. Otherwise, she said, she has received almost no local visitors.
"I'm not trying to keep secrets from anyone," Roberts said. But, she added, "No one comes."