Institute of Positive Education

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The Institute of Positive Education was founded in 1969 in Chicago, Illinois, by Haki Madhubuti and his wife Safisha. It sponsors African-centered learning for youngsters and adults. The institute served as the legal entity for the establishment of the New Concept School in 1972 and it leases space to the Betty Shabazz International Charter School founded by the Madhubutis in 1998. Annually, New Concept instructs about 35 school-age youngsters in an environment that fosters pride in and knowledge about African systems of thought throughout history and the diaspora. Parents of New Concept's students pay an annual tuition of $3,000, and the school's enrollment was once as high as 150 students, before the establishment of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School, where parents can send their children for free to receive an African-centered education from preschool through eighth grade. The charter school has an enrollment of approximately 300 students. New Concept is one of only three such schools in the United States that date back at least 20 years. About New Concept, Haki Madhubuti says, “We're not talking about words on paper but creating a world in which children are being anchored properly. I see our mission as nothing less than providing the necessary foundation for a child to deal with the world from a secure and self-aware position.”

The Schools the Institute Sponsors

Safisha Madhubuti served for 16 years as principal and a teacher at New Concept before leaving the school to finish her doctoral degree at the University of Chicago. Today, she teaches in the School of Education at Northwestern University under the name of Carol Lee. She says, “Students who graduated from New Concept have grown to be lovers of black people and contributors to the world. They are well mannered, not into gangs, not into drugs.” The parents of New Concept's students have been doctors, lawyers, plumbers, secretaries, and welfare recipients. Some parents volunteered in lieu of paying the annual tuition. Most of the parents, however, have been public school teachers. Safisha Madhubuti provides insight into this, saying, “The average dropout rate in the Chicago public schools is around 50%. There are high schools in Chicago where the dropout rate is 75%. I personally cannot name a single child who attended New Concept for even a year who did not go on to graduate from high school. Not one.”
Mornings at New Concept and Betty Shabazz start with the “unity circle,” just before 9:00. The children and staff gather around a large white circle painted on the gymnasium floor. The children recite the “Black National Pledge” developed by the Council of Independent Black Institutions. Using call-and-response, the teacher begins by saying “We are African people.” The children respond with “We are African people. Struggling for national liberation. We are preparing leaders and workers to bring about a positive change for our people. We stress the development of our bodies, minds, souls, and consciousness. Our commitment is to self-determination, self-defense, and self respect for our race. We extend the right hand out for the fruition of Black power, for the triumph of Black nationhood. I pledge to my African nation to the building of a better people and a better world. My total devotion, my total resources, and my total power of my mortal life.”
New Concept and the Betty Shabazz International Charter School aim to teach black children a narrative populated by African and African American heroes and African rituals, fables, and values. On the walls of both schools are works of art that express the aesthetics of African and African American people and inspirational quotes from black luminaries. On the landings between floors, the space is artfully decorated with African prints, tables and chairs, and educational passages printed large enough for display. On one landing are the words of Zora Neale Hurston, on another landing is an African mathematical system. This use of space invites visitors and perhaps teachers to rest and relax with inspirations from the African and African American experience. For drapes, the classrooms have a variety of colorful kente prints at each window. Rows of lockers are against the walls, and children's projects, such as those on the solar system and planets, proudly hang along the hallways. At recess the children sometimes play a game called “The Underground Railroad” where girls clamor to be Harriet Tubman. The children learn Spanish and Kiswahili.
The teachers are referred to as Mama and Baba, which mean “mother” and “father” in Kiswahili. Addressing their teachers in this way gives the children a profound sense of family as it reinforces the instructors' commitment to familial values. New Concept now has 4 teachers, and the Betty Shabazz International school has 19 teachers and 11 classes. At both schools, the children learn art, music, music theory, science, reading, writing, math, social studies, and history. The teachers and the principal at the schools are committed to the success of each student.
Safisha Madhubuti survived the advice of a guidance counselor who told her that graduate school and teaching at the college level were beyond her, although she was an honor student, because they were beyond the abilities of the black child. This was one of the events that inspired Safisha Madhubuti to start New Concept School. When she met Haki Madhubuti at a poetry reading in 1968, she was teaching African American literature at the school that would later come to be called Kennedy-King College. From her teaching she knew that black students needed to be reached much earlier than college. Thus Safisha convinced Haki Madhubuti of the importance of starting a school for African American children.

Education for a Better Future

Haki Madhubuti, whose book of poetry Don't Cry Scream had sold about 500,000 copies in 1969 and 1970, was obsessed with the question “What happened to us? Why is it that most peoples are in charge of their own destiny but not us?” He had been profiled in Ebony and was drawing the attention of scholars at Cornell and other universities, but instead of simply basking in his newfound fame, Haki Madhubuti joined Safisha Madhubuti in creating a school for African American children in an abandoned storefront they rented on Ellis Street. Teaching a Saturdays-only enrichment program, they instructed children ages 2 to 12. At the urging of parents, by 1974 the school was offering a full-time program for preschool through the third grade. Even though the school never advertised, from the beginning the Madhubutis had to turn people away. In 1991, New Concept moved to its present location, a spacious building bought along with the adjoining rectory from the Catholic diocese for roughly $1.4 million. Since then the school has added the fourth through eighth grades. Haki Madhubuti has remained the school's main benefactor. Profits from his publishing company, Third World Press, support the Institute of Positive Education.
The Institute of Positive Education was built not on grants or foundations but from the sweat of labor. Haki Madhubuti proudly admits that in all of his years operating the Institute of Positive Education and the Third World Press, he has never missed a payroll. Graduates from the school say that they are rooted in their identity, which allows them to get along with those who are not black. In the curriculum, Africa is the starting point, not the closing point. Students also learn about the Chinese, Mayans, Native Americans, and others. Safisha Madhubuti says, “We teach about African values and what is useful today—critical thinking. We are realistic about how the world operates.”
The Institute of Positive Education provides the space not only for the New Concept School and the Betty Shabazz International Charter School but also for programs that are African centered. It houses functions for students before and after school, as well as the Mary McLeod Bethune Teachers Training Center headed by Safisha Madhubuti.

References

Keywords

  • Institute of Positive Education
  • international charter
  • international schools
  • charter schools
  • Third World Press
  • African Americans
  • African people

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Hall, Corey.African-centered Charter School Displays Methods During Tour: Betty Shabazz International Charter School Toured During National Charter Schools Week. Citizen Newspaperp. 3. (2002, May 21).
  • Rivlin, Gary.Eyes on the Prize: Over More Than Two Decades, Haki and Safisha Madhubuti Have Proved That African-centered Education Can Amount to More Than a Black Version of History. It Can Also Be a Springboard to a Bright Future. The Chicago Reader (33) 6 (1997, May 23).