Knowledge, Spirit Share Classroom Time at Imani

Article excerpt

On the first day of the school year at Imani Christian Academy in East Hills, Headmaster Milton Raiford stood in the school parking lot, clapping his hands and shouting greetings to arriving students.

"Hey there, come here and give me some love," he called to one little girl, who got a hug, and then turned to a lanky teenage boy: "My man! You got a foot taller over the summer!"

Raiford hugged, praised and teased his students as parents dropped them off near the front door. But when a new student approached, Raiford stopped laughing and blocked the boy's path.

"What's your name?" he said.

"Deryck Robinson," the young man replied, staring at his feet.

"Deryck Robinson? Okay, now say it again and look me in my eye."

The boy raised his head and repeated his name.

"There you go," Raiford said, shaking the boy's hand and staring back into his eyes. "That's better."

It was 8 a.m. on Aug. 30, and Raiford had delivered his first lesson of the school year: No matter what anyone says or thinks about you, respect yourself.

It's a lesson he hammers home repeatedly, but one that is difficult for many Imani students to embrace.

Founded in 1993, the nondenominational Imani Christian Academy recruits students no one else wants, school officials said. The kids are mostly black. They hail from poor East End communities and broken homes. Many have juvenile criminal records, drug addictions or a history of gang involvement.

Imani's goal is to give them a sense of purpose through a steady diet of positive reinforcement, discipline and religion.

"These children will be taught in a fashion that will make them social activists," Raiford said. "We make world-changers here."


Imani sits on a hill above Homewood in an old department store at the end of a winding, crumbling road. Inside, the classroom scene is much like any in America. The kindergarten walls are adorned with educational pictures to teach students the alphabet, numbers and months of the year.

But unlike a public school, the Ten Commandments are posted, as is a Bible verse: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

In these classrooms, evolution will not be taught. Genesis will, officials said, and Christianity is included in all lessons, even a 12th-grade debate over whether the teachers should be forced to wear uniforms like the students.

"Jesus washed the disciples' feet," student DeAmber Cates told Leesa Finney, a dean and teacher. "Why can't you all wear uniforms?"

"He did not place himself higher, but neither did he come down from his place of authority," Finney responded.

Cates lost the argument but her logic won points.

"We're teaching kids to think," said first-grade teacher Jacquelyn N'Jai. "When you're out in the real world and you think, you don't go around with your pants hanging down, you don't go around shooting people. You go around with dignity."

Imani, a K-12 school, was established in 1993, a bloody year in Pittsburgh when 80 people were murdered in the city.

"I was burying kids every week that year," said Bishop Donald Clay, the school's founder and co-chair of the board.

The violence did not strike his family, Clay said, until one night that summer when his nephew, Charles Harper, was beaten at a party. At the hospital, Clay found the teen clinging to life. They recognized him by his shoes.

"He was disfigured," Clay said. "It was a level of violence I wasn't familiar with."

Clay reacted instinctually -- he went home, grabbed a baseball bat and went looking for his nephew's attackers, he said. But as he neared the house where his nephew was jumped, Clay's car phone rang. It was Harper's step-dad.

Clay recalled the conversation: "He said, 'I know what you're doing, and I want to do it also. But God spoke to me. …