The African American Academy was the longtime dream of Seattle, Washington black education activists who were frustrated that even with integration efforts like busing and school choice, black students were still falling behind in academic achievement. Spurred by those activists, the Seattle School Board decided in 1990 to create a special academy for black children in the hope that dedicated administrators and teachers promoting a curriculum that reflected the desires of black students and the black community would raise student expectations and performance. When the school opened in 1991, sharing space in the Coleman Elementary School building, 300 black students were enrolled from across Seattle and 167 students were turned away because of lack of space.
In 1992, African American Academy parents and administrators adopted a dress code of emerald green and plaid uniforms. School leaders also adopted the seven African principles of Nguzo Saba, a set of ideas involving unity, faith, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, purpose, creativity, and cooperative economics. These principles were identified primarily with Tanzania’s socialist experiment in the 1970s and with the Kwanzaa celebrations adopted by many African Americans during the same period. The school was also modeled after the successful New Concept School in Chicago that encouraged high academic standards among inner city children.
The African American Academy, one of 101 Seattle Public Schools, served students in grades K-8. Its students, who were called “scholars,” were mostly from low income, single parent homes. They were provided an enriched academic curriculum and were often exposed for the first time to field trips to museums, theaters, and public landmarks such as the Space Needle as well as community lectures and debates. There was also extensive parental involvement. Parents, teachers, and students signed “contracts” to guarantee parental monitoring of homework assignments.
The Academy moved frequently in its first nine years but in the fall of 2000 was finally located in its own building in South Seattle. The three story building was designed for 600 students and included a large lecture hall, cafeteria, and gymnasium. The building’s design incorporated the colors and patterns of Africa including floor tiles inlaid with the “river of life” pattern reminiscent of the River Niger. The dogon, a large circular dome structure found in a number of African nations, became the central architectural element in the building.
Despite its impressive new facility, the goal of enhanced student achievement remained as elusive as ever. As late as 2007 over 80% of the Academy’s students failed the mathematics section of the state’s standardized tests prompting the school to be sanctioned under the No Child Left Behind Act. Enrollment by this point had plummeted from 650 in 2000 to fewer than 350 students. In 2008 the Seattle School Board voted to close the Academy at the end of the 2008-09 school year to help address a $24 million dollar district-wide budget deficit.