These parents support the Kansas City, Missouri, school district's plans to provide a new "African-centered" middle school this fall for students who have grown up with the curriculum at Chick and Ladd elementary schools, two of the troubled district's most-improved schools.
Yet Benson is using his 25-year-old desegregation lawsuit to fight the new African-centered middle school in federal court. The angry parents were ambushed at their own news conference by reporters well-versed in Benson's arguments.
"What about Arthur Benson's report showing that African-centered education is not preparing students for middle school?" asked a TV reporter. The parents had no good answer for the seemingly scientific rebuke of their program.
The damage had begun with an April 25 headline atop the Star's Metro page: "African-themed schools faulted; Benson says test scores decline later." The article quoted no statistician vouching for Benson's report, released to the Star a day earlier, which used Missouri's middle- and high-school test data to argue that students from African-centered elementary schools were poorly prepared for later grades. His report declared that it was "certain that overall the Chick and Ladd students combined have achieved at far lower levels than have other black district students."
"There's a fallacy in there," says Walt Brown, assistant testing director at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "He's trying to make use of a test that wasn't intended for that kind of comparison. It was built to compare fourth grade to fourth grade to fourth grade to fourth grade. Not across grade spans. And that's very iffy business. It's just not sound at all," he says.
When held up to the standards of statistical analysis, Benson's report isn't credible, according to Brown and other education statisticians who spoke with the Pitch. It claims to show that students scored well on tests at Chick and Ladd but poorly on middle- and high-school tests. But it offers no scoring data from the African-centered schools. His report also fails to specify what subjects the students were tested on in grade school. Consequently, the report's finding that former Chick students scored lower on a middle-school social-studies test says nothing about Chick. What's more, the report doesn't say how many children are reflected in the study. Such uncertainty is more than any credible statistician would accept, experts say.
Yet Benson's report persuaded federal Judge Dean Whipple to authorize a more detailed study of the African-centered programs at Chick and Ladd.
The expanded study will ask whether African-centered programs cause black students to perform worse academically than whites. This achievement gap is the only reason the desegregation case continues, though the court has defined the gap using data from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which Kansas City students no longer take and which Benson himself has described as "meaningless."
John Poggio, codirector of the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas, will conduct the expanded study. Poggio has told Benson that with data from multiple tests and multiple schools (at press time, the district had yet to provide this data; Benson hopes the test will be completed by July 8 so Judge Whipple can hold a hearing to determine whether or not to block the middle-school expansion), he could perhaps predict how district students should perform in upper grades. He might then be able to look at students' actual achievement in later years and determine whether they're attaining the ideal levels.
Benson hypothesized in his report that if alumni of the African-centered elementary schools were performing below statistically predicted levels, "it would be a powerful argument against expansion of the program."
But Poggio and other education experts say that such data could instead support the conclusion that middle schools -- not African-centered grade schools -- are failing the children. The study could then support expanding the successful African-centered grade-school model into middle school. "That might be a logical deduction," Poggio says.
Sue Thompson, an education professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City, says that if she saw students performing lower in middle school than in grade school, she wouldn't blame the grade school. "I would look at what's happening at the middle school," she says. Thompson serves on the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.
Thompson might be right, Benson concedes. "Or, it could be that the elementary scores are inflated," he tells the Pitch. "It seems prudent to have more and better information than what is now available before making decisions about expanding a program."
A visit to the school can also provide more information. A strong sense of community -- the kind Thompson says is necessary to help children make the transition from grade school to middle school -- is readily apparent at Chick and Ladd. Students divide into small learning groups named after African countries. They are taught from the district's core curriculum, but each youngster also learns about the country for which his or her group is named.
Each classroom includes a teacher and a "grandmother" -- usually an older woman from the school's community -- who volunteers all or part of her day with the class.
The schools command greater parental involvement than other district schools.
Even when Chick or Ladd hosts a midday event, such as an awards ceremony or a "rite of passage" celebration, the gymnasium is packed with parents who have managed to escape work for an hour.
Parents are encouraged to visit Chick and Ladd at virtually any time. Marva Smith says she drops by Chick several times a week just to check in on her son. Sometimes she takes a little extra time to help out with the lessons, tutoring not only her own child but other kids as well.
Not even the district's highly touted college-prep program encourages such involvement. "I have a son in Lincoln High School who's graduating this year," Smith says. "And just comparing the two schools, I'm always welcome here. I go to visit Lincoln, I have to be escorted to a classroom. I feel intimidated as a parent there."
Chick and Ladd have even managed to supplant pop-culture status symbols with ones based on academic achievement and good behavior: broad kente cloths successful students wear over their shoulders. "It's like you work really hard, and it seems like you just are wonderful," says Imani Williams, a third grader who earned a top-ranking purple kente this past year.
"Really, what you're saying about the characteristics in the African-centered schools at the elementary level are very appropriate to good middle schools," Thompson says.
Deciding where to send their kids for middle school is a dilemma for all parents in the district. Karen McClellan, a working mother, says she wants to be able to make the same choices for her sixth-grade son that Benson could afford when his daughter reached middle-school: He sent her to his alma mater, the private Pembroke Hill. "Chick is a quality program," says McClellan. She wants to continue sending her son to an African-centered school.
But African-centered middle and high schools haven't done well in the district. King Middle School and Southeast High School were declared academically deficient last year by state officials. At the same time, the district's African-centered task force audited these schools. After the audits, district officials decided to drop the African-centered program from King and reopen it at a smaller facility, which would be attended primarily by students who are familiar with the African-centered program.
Even Benson concedes that Chick and Ladd have positive qualities. Benson tells the Pitch that on a visit to Chick he saw "a very orderly school, where it was obvious that learning was going on." A team of education experts likewise visited Ladd, reporting favorably on the school to Benson, who had selected the experts to visit various Kansas City schools. The team found room for improvement but said the school had made great strides in recent years. "Ladd has been improving substantially," Benson says.
But in court documents and comments to the media, he has attacked the program for years while fighting for a costly system of themed schools that he helped devise.
"This is the only theme-based program in the district that [Benson] hasn't created," says Kevin Bullard, coordinator of the district's African-centered program. "Yet we still outperform those same schools. I think a lot of the issues he raises are more personal and philosophical than they are based on performance."
Benson takes offense at this interpretation. He says he is giving the African-centered model the same scrutiny he would any other program. "We have asked the KCMSD for data on three non-ACE programs," he says. But his query to the district for information on these programs is a mere two paragraphs long -- notably less inquisitive than his numerous lengthy requests for information on the African-centered schools.
An e-mail Benson recently sent to select parents indicates he favors some programs over others. In it, he suggests taking the "political approach" of asking the school board to maintain programs he helped create, such as those at Lincoln Prep and the district's Montessori schools.
Benson hung up on the Pitch when asked about an evaluation report that contained both a positive assessment of Ladd and an overwhelmingly negative review of Paseo Fine Arts Academy. The Pitch wanted to know why Benson didn't question the integrity of the Paseo program he had helped devise. Benson called the line of questioning a "personal attack." Benson denies singling out African-centered programs for legal challenge.
Benson has claimed to "represent all children, present and future." Yet few of his actions sit well with the students at Chick and Ladd. "The kids are very aware of what is going on," Bullard says.
But Benson has inspired some students. "I want to be lawyer," says Chick third-grader Shakur Khalifah, "so we can go to court, and then I'll try to fight him."