Local author tells principal’s story

Local author Carey Blakely has turned her experiences at an Oakland charter school into a recently published book, “Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City.”

Released Sept. 1, the book takes readers inside the American Indian Public Charter School, nicknamed “The Zoo” by Oakland locals until Principal Dr. Ben Chavis came along. Bucking against many education myths, Chavis shook up a rundown school on the brink of closure and made it an educational success story.

Blakely, a Del Mar native and Torrey Pines High graduate, will appear with Chavis at a book signing at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at Warwick’s in La Jolla.

Blakely, 29, attended UC Berkeley, graduating a semester early in December 2001 with a degree in English. After working for a time in corporate marketing, she realized she wanted to do something different.

Blakely arrived at AIPCS in Oakland as a ninth-grade teacher, teaching 13 students subjects such as creative writing, social studies and geometry.

When she got there, AIPCS was in a time of rebirth, thanks to Chavis. Blakely describes Chavis as intense, outrageous and tough.

In an approach that was somewhat unconventional, Chavis downplayed the importance of cultural learning, insisting that the students were up to their ears in it, Blakely said, adding that instead of bead making and drum circle classes, the students needed better skills in subjects such as language and math.

Chavis practiced public embarrassment, “dressing down” students who misbehaved in front of their classmates. There were high expectations for good behavior and responsible schoolwork - detentions were passed out frequently and there was Saturday school.

“What happened wasn’t revolutionary,” said Blakely. “It was just back to basics.”

The approach worked. The school went from dismal testing scores to becoming a California Blue Ribbon School and the fourth highest scoring school in the state.

In the 2007-08 school year, while the rest of Oakland’s ninth- and 10th-graders were 4 percent proficient in algebra, 100 percent of AIPCS’ were. “We were blowing other schools out of the water,” Blakely said.

With success came media attention - “20/20" and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came calling. The school was called an “education miracle.”

With the miracle and Chavis’ intense personality, Blakely really started thinking, “There’s really a book here,” she said.

The next year, while Blakely moved to a high school site administrator position, she interviewed Chavis frequently as she wrote the book.

Blakely wrote the book in Chavis’ voice, so she is taking a bit of a backseat in the promotional tour. Chavis appeared on NPR and last weekend shared a panel with Bill Cosby for an MSNBC special on poverty and education.

Now burnt out on the Bay Area, Blakely is living in Borrego Springs, substitute teaching and working on her writing. She’d like to write a second book or maybe even start her own charter school someday - the blueprint for which she has written herself.