Seventh grader Haile Emerson peeked his head into a classroom at Gilkey Pamoja Preparatory Academy and asked, “Hodi hodi” (or “May I enter?” in Swahili). Principal Sean Nichols responded, “Karibu,” or “You’re welcome.”
Pamoja, located at 3935 Enright Ave., teaches its 410 students about African values and customs, alongside the standard curriculum that’s taught in St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS). Emerson said he loves how Pamoja teaches him about himself.
“We all came from one place,” Emerson said. “The first human Homo sapiens bones were found in Ethiopia; they were approximately 3.4 million years old. Some people named her Lucy.”
He added that everyone’s “mitochondria DNA” is connected to Lucy’s.
“We’re all family, no matter who we are, where we are or what we are,” Emerson said.
In 2011, SLPS district leaders decided to transform Cole Elementary into an African-centered school, modeled after a program in Kansas City. The activist Bertha Knox Gilkey strongly urged the district to open the program, and it was renamed in her honor after she passed in 2014.
Much of the program is focused around the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba, which is also celebrated during Kwanzaa. Most important is the idea of collectiveness and improving your community, said Nichols, who has led the program since the beginning.
“Pamoja is an innovative approach to education,” said Alderman Terry Kennedy of the 18th Ward, where the school is located. “I have seen it help students with poor self-concepts grow in self-esteem, achievement, respect and community pride. That self-esteem and community pride promoted by Pamoja can surely lead to higher test scores and academic achievement.”
Since 2013, the school has more than doubled its state assessment score. In 2015, the school earned 48 points or 68.6 percent on the state’s Annual Performance Report. That’s just shy of a score that would qualify for full accreditation. Currently the school is provisionally accredited.
Eighth grader Diamond Blue said the teachers are constantly ensuring the students that they can “conquer things in life.”
“For instance, when I first started coming here in sixth grade, I made D’s and C’s,” she said. “Now I make straight A’s.”
Before she came to the school, she said she had minimum knowledge about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other African-American leaders.
“I was walking around the world just thinking that black people don’t have culture, black people don’t have history,” she said. “Now I know we have history, and I walk around more confident.”
Isaiah Strong, an eighth grade student who is now in his second year at Pamoja, said the curriculum was a “shock” to him.
“When I was younger, I thought everything was white, white, white,” he said. “The only black leader that I knew was Martin Luther King.”
He said what the school taught him about his culture changed his life.
“Before, my behavior was horrible,” he said. “I used to play a lot; I wasn’t serious about school. Now I’m trying to practice my culture, and I’m doing the best that I can.”
On a Tuesday afternoon, Rodney Barber was walking through the hall with a few boxes of cupcakes for his daughter Rodnita’s birthday. She has attended the school for three years.
“She comes home at least once a week telling me something I didn’t know,” Barber said. “It makes me do a little more research myself. If my daughter is into it, then I got to get into it.”
The program embraces the importance of family and community, Nichols said, and these core values help connect struggling families. About one-fourth of the students come from transient homes, and 65 of their families are homeless, he said.
“The children that we work with daily, the energy and spirit that they bring is something that you have to embrace and understand,” said Gwendolyn Redding, lead pre-Kindergarten teacher.
“And once you understand it, they just soar. And once they understand that you know, they just grow.”