Larisa Karr

Fela Barclift founded Little Sun People, an Afrocentric school in Brooklyn, nearly four decades ago out of frustration with mainstream public school curriculums. (Credit: Larisa Karr)

Thirty-nine years ago, Fela Barclift decided to abandon the prospect of a high-paying job and start a project completely from scratch: her own school. 

“I wanted to have a place for my daughter and when she was little, I had to do something,” says Barclift, who is originally from Georgia and has degrees in education, administration and supervision. “I did this for her so she could have something that I never got.”

Barclift is the founder of Little Sun People, a preschool in Brooklyn that uses an Afrocentric curriculum, which places an emphasis on teaching children about their African heritage. Although Afrocentric schools have been around since the 1970s – a City Limits report from 1997 notes there were nearly 80 black independent schools in the city that year many closed for economic reasons over the last few decades. But new ones have been popping up across the country in recent years, including multiple schools in Brooklyn, and Barclift has hope for the schools that are operating now, saying many parents of Black children desire a curriculum that connects students with their roots, and for opportunities that they themselves did not have when they were younger. 

“When I went to a college with mostly White kids, they were all so proud of where their families came from and I thought ‘I’ve got nothing to be proud of,'” says Barclift, 69. Before starting Little Sun People, she’d previously taught at the Uhuru Sasa Shule, otherwise known as the Freedom Now School, a pioneering Afrocentric private school in Brooklyn that closed its doors in 1984. “Our children are starting to feel a stronger sense of identity and they don’t have to doubt themselves in the same way many of us have been taught to doubt ourselves for our whole lives.”

The history of Afrocentric schooling goes back to the 1960s and 1970s, when schools like the Institute of Positive Education were founded in Chicago. Correlating with the Black Power and Pan-African movements, these schools sought to connect Black children with their history and identity, something many feel is not acknowledged in public schools. For some, Afrocentric schools are one part of a larger fight for equality and recognition in the school system. 

“I think people see it as a broader set of steps that we have to take in order to decolonize the public education system, that there are a lot of parts of it that can be oppressive and a lot of parts of it that go toward embedding racism and White supremacy in our culture,” says Mark Winston Griffith, co-producer and co-host of Brooklyn Deep’s School Colors, a podcast series examining race and class dynamics through the lens of a local school district in Bed-Stuy.

Many parents, like Barclift, sought out Afrocentric schools as a result of discontentment with the heavily-Eurocentric approach favored in mainstream schools. Brooklyn’s Ember Charter School for Mindful Education, Innovation and Transformation, for example, places extra emphasis on the value of each individual student and their unique capabilities, something administrators say often gets overlooked in traditional public school settings.

“We’re focused on love and connection as the engine of learning and development and most mainstream schools aren’t really concerned with that,” says Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II, who founded the school in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2011. “They’re concerned with management and discipline and in a lot of ways, they criminalize the behavior of a lot of black and brown young people. We don’t do that at all.”

Instead, Ember focuses on the mental health of its students and approaches their curriculum through an Afrocentric and Latino-centric lens, in line with the demographics of its 519 students, 99 percent of whom are Black and Latino. The school teaches youngsters from kindergarten through eighth grade, and its middle school students in recent years scored higher on the state’s English and Math tests than the district, city and state-wide averages. Enrollment has increased each year that data on the school has been collected, and Id-Din II says there’s continuing demand: the school receives 500 applications each year for its 80 to 90 available seats, and there’s a waitlist, mainly for the 4th to 6th grades. 

Ember’s curriculum stresses to students that the world existed before 1492 and Christopher Columbus, Id-Din II says. The school wants its students to have direct connection to their heritage, and it frequently takes middle-schoolers on trips, most recently to South Africa.

“It was an opportunity for me to learn more about my history, learn more about the struggles and actually see it for myself,” says Ryanna Isles-Lugo, a 14-year-old former Ember student who went on the six-week South Africa trip, chaperoned by adults from the school. “It was a surreal kind of feeling to be able to be with my friends and be with these teachers who look like me, talk like me and who understand what I’m going through.”

Little Sun People, where 98 percent of students have African heritage, does this by incorporating a variety of extracurricular activities into its curriculum, in addition to traditional subjects like science and history. A dance teacher from the Ivory Coast comes to dance and drum with the children twice a week. The school’s martial arts teacher leads students in African chants before they begin their activities, and the children count in Swahili during their math classes. 

Academic experts think the demand for this kind of culturally-responsive education will continue to increase in places like New York City, which has for decades struggled to address issues of racial inequality across schools. 

“I think that as the issues over the city’s public schools become more embattled and more polarized, reflecting the polarization that we have in our country as a whole, there’s going to be more interest,” says Fabienne Doucet, an associate professor of early childhood and urban education at New York University. “People are going to be looking into other possibilities rather than feeling that their children have to end up in schools that are under-resourced.”

Currently, there are seven known Afrocentric schools in New York City. Little Sun People, Ember, The XyayX Institute, Seneca Village Montessori Afrocentric School and The Eagle Academy for Young Men II are located in Brooklyn, while Linden Seventh-Day Adventist School is located in Queens and Northeastern Academy in Manhattan.

Vivett Dukes, an English teacher and literacy specialist with the New York City Department of Education, sent one of her children to Linden Seventh-Day Adventist and the other to Northeastern Academy.

“The importance of Afrocentric schools is to build self-esteem, that before we can teach our kids about other people, they need to know about themselves first,” says Dukes, who founded the education blog New York School Talk. “This is important especially for children who are marginalized in traditional school settings.”

While some community groups see a solution to school inequity in making public schools more integrated – reports have ranked New York’s schools among the most segregated in the country – others believe that the term “integration” is problematic in and of itself. 

“White folks are presented as what the ideal is when the term ‘integration’ is used, so that’s oftentimes the background that this conversation is operating in. It’s hard to look at integration in a way that frees itself from all the historical baggage and assumptions that that word carries,” says Griffith, who is originally from Brooklyn.  

Though Afrocentric schools like Ember and Little Sun People tend to serve mostly students of color, Doucet says she doesn’t believe segregation is the goal, but instead a chance for black children to thrive outside of an educational system that traditionally doesn’t allow them to do so.

“Especially when kids are young and their minds are still being formed, you want them to have a really solid sense of foundation, a sense of identity, a sense of who they are, a sense of history and a sense of pride,” says Doucet, who also serves as a program officer at the William T. Grant Foundation. “All of these things really set people up for a long-term future and for being able to function successfully in the world.”

Although schools like Little Sun People accept White students, Barclift said the differences were obvious when children of the different races were placed in the same environment. 

“A couple years ago, we had two White children. I would often watch that classroom of 12 students and see the deference toward the White children and how they would always be leading the pack,” said Barclift. “It wasn’t that the two little white-skinned boys were bad. They just felt like they were entitled in a way that the other children did not and it’s not always clear to us because we don’t always have White children here.”

Isles Lugo’s mother, Raquel Isles, says she chose to send her child to Ember because, like Barclift, it was a chance for her daughter to experience a type of education where the teachers resemble the students and actively respond to them.

“I think in an Afrocentric environment, they’re more attentive to culture and learning, they see what trauma is like and they can recognize it because they know where they’re coming from,” says Isles, 52. “In public school, if you’re a child that has trauma and is misbehaving, you just get passed on because they don’t want to deal with you.”

For Ryanna, who graduated from Ember in 2019, the inclusive curriculum and environment is what made the school so rewarding. 

“They put you first in comparison to how mainstream schools would push you on and not really care about what’s going on in your home life or what you’re suffering through,” she says. “Ember puts in that time to cater to what each student needs and to make sure that each student understands exactly what they need to be taught before they move on.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Ember had plans to expand into high school last year, but the State Department of Education rejected its application to do so, despite its having been already approved by the city. Id-Din II says the state made false claims about Ember, including that they were not receiving community support and that their student test results were not sufficient. As a result, graduating students at Ember were placed into three other high schools: Bard Early College, The Baccalaureate School for Global Education or The Beacon School. 

Isles was hoping for Ryanna to continue her education at Ember and was disappointed when the state did not grant the school permission to grow.

“We were expecting our high school to be approved, so all our eighth graders had to move away and go into different schools,” says Isles. “They all separated for the first time in eight years and all our kids that were ready for ninth grade were stuck.”

As challenging as the state approval process can be, in some ways the Afrocentric schools have taken on a larger challenge: Trying to create a bypass around centuries of racist educational doctrine and Eurocentric curricula.

Griffith, who was sympathetic to the purpose of the schools, has doubts on whether they can deliver on that promise. “I think that that kind of teaching could be one way of deprogramming people, but it’s only one small piece of it and it’s certainly not a panacea,” he says. “I think Afrocentric education is part of liberating ourselves from the baggage of that frame, yet it doesn’t take us to the place of what a fully-liberated education looks like. I don’t think we’ve begun to ask that question because we haven’t even gotten to sea level yet.”

Id-Din II says he plans to continue to fight for the school’s expansion, and has already applied this year to do so for the 2020-2021 school year. The Department of Education held a public hearing for the school’s application on Jan. 28, which he says went well, with more than 100 people coming out and a dozen speakers testifying in support of the school’s expansion. 

Little Sun People has also grown since it first opened its doors more than three decades ago. Originally located on the floor of Barclift’s brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the school moved to its current location at 1360 Fulton St. in 1985 due to increasing demand. Barclift says community support for the school remains strong, and there is a waiting list for the facility’s 56 seats, for which it typically receives between 200 to 250 applications. 

“People are constantly trying to get in here, baking pies for us and giving us flowers, cards, calls, twisting our arms and saying, ‘Remember, I’m a friend with so-and-so-and-so,” she says, adding that demand has increased over the last six years. “People are really interested.”

Demand for charter schools in the city has increased overall in the last decade: this school year, the city’s charters received more than 80,000 applicants, up 32 percent since 2010, according to the New York City Charter School Center.

Brooklyn’s Afrocentric schools have gotten positive feedback from the city’s Department of Education: data shows that Little Sun People ranks high when it comes to providing materials and practices that supports the students’’language learning, as well as its rate of interaction between the instructors and students throughout the day. At Ember, 97 percent of the students’ families say that Id-Din II actively promotes a feeling of community and 66 percent of students say that they productively use feedback on their classroom work. 

Barclift says the benefits of an Afrocentric education can continue beyond a student’s school years. 

“We encourage parents to keep their kids doing things like African dance and taking them to places where they can be exposed to their culture, their people and the positive side of life as an African-American,” she says. “They will bring various parts of what happened here to wherever their child goes.”