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Dr. Ben Chavis talks with students in the multi-purpose room at the end of the lunch period at the American Indian Charter School where he is the principal. In the background, students start to clean up to prepare the space for gym classes. (Laura Oda/The Oakland Tribune)
OAKLAND - THE CLASS was in mid-lesson when Ben Chavis, principal of the American Indian Charter School, stopped by during his afternoon rounds.

Instantly, the principal's eyes darted to the corner of the room where an orange cone rested on a chair. Earlier in the day, Chavis had ordered a boy named Mike to hug the cone "like a baby" for the rest of the school year — his punishment for a racist insult.

But Mike had gone to another class, leaving the cone behind. It took a split second for Chavis to realize what the teacher hadn't: The boy had duped them.

Chavis's expression hardened.

"You should have known something was wrong," he barked at the teacher, as her students, and Mike's classmates, looked on. "He's a liar! You can't trust him."

Chavis, an American Indian who grew up in segregated North Carolina, heads the renowned charter school in East Oakland's Laurel District. His approach to education is often described as "tough love" or "no nonsense," but it is often more aggressive, and less predictable.

He can be charming, entertaining and compassionate, but his demeanor will turn on a dime if someone challenges his authority.One teacher compares him to Bobby Knight, the controversial college basketball legend whose antics eventually cost Knight his head coaching job at Indiana University.

Chavis doesn't mind the comparison. He admires Knight's style. And just as Knight's impressive record shielded him for years against allegations of verbal and physical abuse, the awe-inspiring test scores and national attention achieved by the American Indian Public Charter School have protected Chavis from his detractors.

Last month the Oakland school district demanded some answers from the charter school's board about the principal's conduct. It remains to be seen, however, what the tough talk will yield.

Even under pressure, Chavis might well be unwilling, or unable, to dial down his outbursts.

» related multimedia: In his own words: A day with Principal Ben Chavis

One morning in March, Mills College education professor Sabrina Zirkel brought some graduate students to Chavis' famed charter school. She chose the school in part because its outstanding test scores and harsh disciplinary practices strike at the heart of a national debate on education reform.

Zirkel said she expected to see some "tough talk." She didn't expect Chavis to drive one of her graduate students, a 25-year-old African-American man, out of the school after he showed up 15 minutes late.

"He pushed his chest into my shoulder and begun to usher me out of the building, shouting profanities and insults in my face. He called me a '(expletive) minority punk" at least five times and shouted, 'I'm going to kick your ass' at least seven times.'

"He said ... I was a 'worthless piece of (expletive) people have been making excuses for' all of my life," was the account Unity Lewis gave in a complaint letter, echoed by others in his group.

Chavis acknowledges he swore at Lewis and that he called him a "disgrace" to his race. He did so, he said, because Lewis "acted like a fool," called Chavis a "homey" and initially refused to leave the school grounds.

Chavis was hardly chastened by the scathing complaints. In fact, he said, he showed Lewis' letter to his students, and they made fun of its spelling and grammatical errors.

He hooted. "They think he's a loser," he said.

Chavis had little reason to worry that the Mills incident would cause him any problems. The school district, and his own board, had received allegations of belligerent behavior for years.

Zirkel, herself, wondered if anything would come of it.

"Our complaints are new, but these kinds of complaints have been around for some time now," she said. "I think it speaks to the way test scores seem to be the only thing that matter in these kinds of assessments of schools."

On standardized tests, Chavis' kids outscore their Oakland school district peers by leaps and bounds. In 2006, 79 percent of Chavis' African-American eighth-graders tested at a proficient level or better in reading, compared to 20 percent in district schools. The difference in is even more pronounced for Latino students (82 percent vs. 16 percent).

This year, all of his 10th-graders passed the high school exit exam on their first try.

Those figures explain why — just days after the Mills story came to light — Christopher Wright, a regional representative for the U.S. secretary of education, came to the school and lauded Chavis' leadership as a handful of protesters demonstrated outside.

After the National Blue Ribbon ceremony, which recognized American Indian as one of the top 290 public or private schools anywhere in the nation, Wright said he hadn't heard about the Mills complaints. He didn't seem too concerned.

"Obviously, he's doing many, many things right," Wright said.

Oakland's central office administrators, too, have seemed reluctant to interfere. In fact, state administrator Kimberly Statham allowed Chavis to open another school this fall despite the numerous complaints that reached the district office.

In 2004, Chavis ordered a mother off the premises during a tiff over a forgotten lunch she brought to the school. He followed up with a letter in which he gave her a multiple-choice question to explain her behavior:

"1. You are on drugs. 2. You have psychological problems. 3. You are a liar. Could it be that all the above apply to you? I know that numbers two and three are right on target."

District acts

A recent school district inquiry suggests the days of looking the other way might be coming to an end.

The Oakland school district doesn't have the authority to fire or discipline Chavis, since charter schools are independently run. The school's charter requires its board of directors — not the principal, himself — to investigate complaints about employees.

If the school district finds that American Indian has violated its charter agreement, it can shut it down. The chances of the district closing the highest performing public middle school in the city, though, are remote.

In a May 22 letter sent to the charter school's board president, an Oakland schools administrator said she was "very concerned" about the Mills allegations and other complaints. The district administrator, Kirsten Vital, also questioned whether the charter school's board was doing its job.

Rose Lee, the president of American Indian's board, is no critic of Chavis. She describes him as "the best principal that I know of."

When Lee receives complaints about the principal, she said, she simply forwards them on to him.

Lee, whose sons attend the school, said she doesn't believe Chavis would ever harm someone physically, or initiate any sort of verbal attack. Appropriating one of the principal's favorite terms for someone who deserves to be treated poorly, she said, "If you'll be a fool to him, he'll treat you like a fool."

Complicated man

It's easy to vilify someone who refers to black, Latino and American Indian students as "darkies," who will swear at anyone who doesn't follow his rules, and who scoffs at the idea of defending his decisions to an unhappy parent — even when he has a child repeat a grade.

But this is the same man who received a rousing standing ovation from his students during the National Blue Ribbon Award ceremony, the same man whose unorthodox behavior and off-the-wall tales has teenagers howling with laughter.

It's also the same man who took in Marco Escobar — a special education student who barely knew the alphabet — when other public schools wouldn't enroll him, said the boy's mother, Julia Escobar, who stopped by the school to drop off paperwork for her younger son.

"He learned how to read, too," Escobar said about Marco, who is now in high school. "I remember you saying, 'He tries, he tries. I like a kid who tries."'

Chavis has more than his share of enemies, but he is adored by others who admire his unwavering approach to academic rigor and discipline.

One day in late May, a mother named Lucia Espinoza came to the front office to enroll her son. He is a good kid, she said, but he needed a dose of tough talk and consequences. She heard Chavis was the man to do it.

"Somebody has to get these kids by the neck and strangle them a little bit," she said, half-facetiously.

Racial stereotypes

Whether motivated by fear, a love of learning, or both, the students at American Indian Public Charter School show an uncanny level of classroom focus.

One morning in mid-May, the soft plunk and scratch of compasses on paper was the only sound coming from the algebra classroom. They had finished their advanced algebra textbook with weeks of school left. Geometry was next.

Teachers Janet Shewmon and Lifang Lee say the orderly school culture frees them to do their jobs, a departure from past teaching experiences.

"I interned at a school where they hand out rewards for kids who did their homework," Lee said. "Not here."

Chavis does, however, hand out cash for perfect attendance, or for not getting a detention — a deceptively challenging task at the rule-bound school.

He also writes himself a blank check when it comes to racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes, often for entertainment or shock value. His sentences frequently start with "You people."

Interestingly enough, though he espouses sweeping generalizations about people, he loathes more subtle forms of racial classification. Among those is the widely held belief that an influx of Asian students is inflating his school's high test scores.

"That's racist," he fumes. In fact, his black and Latino eighth-graders do better than the Asian kids in reading, although they trail slightly in math.

He argues that with stability, structure and the highest of expectations, every student can master those subjects and succeed — even in a fundamentally racist world that will subject them to stereotypes.

"This may be the kid who has the cure for cancer. How will we know if we don't push him?" he asked.

Imani Williams, a 12-year-old African-American Muslim pupil at the American Indian Public Charter School, remembers the first time she heard her principal challenge a classmate to work harder by referring to his ethnicity.

"It was, 'Don't be a lazy Mexican,'" she recalled.

Imani was surprised to hear it coming from a principal, she said, but no one in earshot seemed to be offended — they understood what he meant.

"He's not calling you a lazy Mexican," she said. "He's saying, 'People are going to stereotype you as that, so don't let them.'"

Imani also said that when another girl made fun of her head scarf, Chavis made her apologize to the entire school during lunch.

"He's a very different person from any other teacher and principal I've met, but I like that," she said.

Bad example

Except for his refusal to incorporate computers and technology into the curriculum, Chavis' philosophy of education is increasingly commonplace in a data-driven era: Load the kids up with reading, writing and math. If they don't get it, give them more.

It's Chavis' style of motivation and discipline that makes some people wonder if he should be in the education business. His arsenal of disciplinary tools not only includes detentions — many, many detentions — and harsh reports to Mom and Dad, but public humiliation.

A sign on the door of the main office sums up his attitude on screw-ups: "No one can be a complete failure at the American Indian Public Charter School. You can always serve as a bad example."

Like Mike.

Before Chavis banished the eighth-grader to the seventh grade and sentenced him to weeks holding a bright orange cone, Mike had called a Chinese-American girl a five-letter word. He then, by his own admission, told her to thank her ancestors for "building our railroads."

Later that day, after Chavis uncovered Mike's ill-fated attempt to evade his punishment, the boy cowered in the hallway outside his class, hugging the cone. Chavis then turned his wrath on Mike's classmates — for being so tolerant.

"You know what? I don't understand you Chinese guys," Chavis said. "Did you hear what he said to (the student)?" They nodded.

He paused, creating an awkward silence.

"Listen, I would shun him," he finally said. "He's a loser."