Joe Robertson | Many believe ACE has a place

Here’s how you open a column guaranteed to generate phone calls and online comments.

Start with the words “African-centered education.”

Kansas City Public Schools has a campus dedicated to teaching children through this ethnic-focused lens.

It keeps a tenuous, hard-won foothold here in the face of confusion and criticism that comes raining down whenever it is the backdrop of news.

In Tucson, Ariz., a Mexican-American studies program was undone by similar criticisms — policymakers outside the program fearing it to be divisive.

The worst condemnations imagine a distorted, anti-white dogma preaching separatism.

Really, all the ethnic-focused educators want is to give children and their families a choice to learn and pursue college and life aspirations from their own cultural place in the world.

Geneva Gay, a University of Washington-Seattle professor who specializes in multicultural education, said: “Everything we do in education is grounded in someone’s culture.”

Usually, that culture is Eurocentric. It is dominated by white males, even when well-intentioned teachers make sincere overtures to the experience of women and minorities.

“Why don’t we call that divisive?” Gay said.

Gay recently headlined the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Urban Education and Community Forum.

We’re no different than any other community, she said.

Tension over an African-centered program, as with the Mexican-American program in Arizona, “raises its head,” Gay said, and shows “that we as a society have not genuinely dealt with racial issues yet.”

Arthur Benson, the plaintiffs’ attorney during the Kansas City district’s desegregation era, played a hand in the creation of a network of magnet schools.

He originally resisted efforts to include African-centered programming, unconvinced it was an effective approach.

Now he sees a program that “tailors educational opportunities to the desires and interests of parents and their children … that drive strong interest and allegiance.”

The programs are held to the same state curriculum standards. The students take the same tests and aspire to the same college and career goals.

“Every ethnic population has a right to understand their legacies, culture and heritage,” Gay said.

Many ethnic communities are trying to close a persistent achievement gap.

“If the people who advocate for (ethnic-centric education) believe it will improve the ultimate life chances of children … what’s the problem?” Gay said.

“There shouldn’t be all this noise.”