A struggling school hitches its future to a popular president by changing its name to honor Barack Obama

A struggling Detroit school, one of the oldest charter schools in Michigan, is opening the new school year next month with an updated approach to teaching new program, and a new name that honors former President Barack Obama.

Timbuktu Academy, which has been open since 1997, will become Barack Obama Leadership Academy. 

The name change comes after an update to the school designed to promote leadership and improve the school’s environment.  And Bernard Parker, Timbuktu’s CEO, says there was no better person to rename the school after than the country’s 44th president. 

“The school always was about trying to produce leaders of the future,” Parker said. School officials “just felt that we needed to change our name since we’re going to be doing another curriculum.”

It’s an extreme chance to take, but the school’s needs are extreme: Currently, just 10% of the school’s students are proficient in all subject areas, according to state data. That’s well below the statewide average of 40%. Poor performing charter schools are subject to closure, but even more so in Detroit’s competitive school landscape where there are more seats than students.

Parker says the school’s focus on leadership isn’t new, but that the updated curriculum will give teachers a more structured way to teach those lessons. For instance, students will have more opportunities to take on new responsibilities such as leading morning announcements. 

Timbuktu’s new program, Leader in Me, is effective, and “the program’s actual lessons are appropriate” for K-5 students, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, And Emotional Learning, a group that researches social and emotional learning. Elementary school students had fewer disciplinary problems than students who weren’t in the program, according to the study

The Leader in Me program includes three years of training, including sessions with on-site coaches and online resources for principals and teachers. 

Parker says that the school had previously used parts of the 12-year-old curriculum after a presentation from its creators two years ago. But, “we decided to adopt the whole program.”

And even though the name and approach to learning are changing at Barack Obama Leadership Academy, Parker says that the heart of the school’s culture will remain the same. It’s current curriculum meets Michigan’s standards and so academic content won’t change much, he said.

But how the school staff treats and encourages students will be different. Educators will  continue to incorporate African traditions, language, literature, and culture into the lessons, but they will begin adding leadership lessons.

“We think it’s very important that the environment reflects the people attending the school,” Parker said. “We use examples of things that are relevant for them, and we are going to continue that, but we were not getting the results that we needed,” he said.

Parker says that the attention to reinforcing good behavior, building self-esteem, and creating more opportunities for leadership is especially important for the black students he serves — most from low income families. That’s a large reason the board accepted the new approach. 

“We have a belief that every child can learn, you just have to reach them, and motivate them to learn,” he said.

He said his team was inspired by seeing other schools using the approach.

“We’ve visited schools in Chicago, and we talked to a school in St. Louis, and their results have been very positive,” he said, noting that some results were higher test scores, better morale among students, and more parental involvement. 

Obama Leadership Academy won’t be the first school in Michigan to add Leader in Me to its curriculum. In fact, two out of three of the schools in Dearborn’s public school district that use the program have already won awards from it.  

Zainah Tiba, principal of Lindbergh Elementary, says that she’s seen the impact on her students, and in her school’s culture. One major part of the program, she says, is that students set academic and social goals for themselves.

She said goal setting allowed students to better connect their individual goals with the district’s. “Having students know exactly what they’re doing and how they’re going to attain those goals really helps them in being successful academically.”

Timbuktu plans to reveal its new name and other changes to the school in an open house Aug. 24. School officials will unveil the new sign and present a tribute to Obama. 

This will be the first school in Michigan named after Obama, according to the state’s master list of schools. A small number of schools in multiple other states, including California, New York, and Georgia, also use the former president’s name. 

“He’s one of the greatest leaders of the 21st century,” Parker said. “He’s a great example for our young people.”