After 4 years, Oakland schools’ African American Male Achievement initiative assesses how it’s doing

Chris Chatmon is the executive director of the African American Male Achievement Initiative.

Chris Chatmon is the executive director of the African American Male Achievement Initiative.

Facing a projector screen at the front of their classroom, 16 8th graders turn their attention to a music video for rapper MC Lyte’s single “Dear John.” The lyrics craft a letter to African-American young men and their fathers, acknowledging their struggles and urging them to show strength and remain open despite life’s challenges. The chorus asks: “What you wanna do?/ So you wanna be ballers, shot callers/ Dippin’ in the Benz straight lawless?/ Or would you rather be fathers to your daughters?” Images of smiling African-American men hugging their children flash across the screen, followed by those of famous black men like Cornel West, Arthur Ashe and Frederick Douglass.

When the video concludes, teacher Kevin Jennings asks his students to write a response to a question: If more videos like “Dear John” were shown in popular media, “What type of influence do you think it would have on black males?” The participants in his class put pen to paper. As he walks around the room, signing off completed journal entries, Jennings asks students to share what they’ve written.

Michael Johnson raises his hand and reads: “The influence would be amazing.” Johnson, wearing white pants and a black jacket, continues to read from his journal, saying that in music, movies, and media, he sees black people portrayed doing drugs and making bad decisions. But this video is different, Johnson says—“If we saw in the media males taking care of their kids, and taking the responsibility and owning up, that could change what black people are persuaded to be.”

Johnson is an African-American student who does not have a father at home, and he’s sharing his journal entry with a group of other African-American young men at Montera Middle School. The class they are in is not social studies or English—it’s the Manhood Development Program (MDP), created by the Office of African American Male Achievement.

The African American Male Achievement (AAMA) initiative is a part of the Oakland school district, the first initiative of its kind in the nation. The office was established in 2010 by then-superintendent Tony Smith, due to achievement gaps between African-American boys and other Oakland students. At that time, African-American male students were twice as likely to be chronically absent from their elementary, middle, or high school than the district’s population as a whole. They had poorer standardized test scores in reading and math, scoring 39 percent lower on the English portion of California state exams than their white counterparts during the 2009-2010 school year. During the 2010-2011 school year, they were five times more likely to be suspended than other students.

The AAMA’s main goals for African-American boys are to increase attendance, graduation rates, and literacy while decreasing suspensions, incarceration, and the achievement gap. Just a few months after the office was launched, director Chris Chatmon decided to move away from a program run “at the 50,000-foot level”—meaning discussions among administrators—to one actually run in schools. “Black boys have to feel this. Parents have to see this. It’s got to be something tangible,” Chatmon said. “At the core, we stay student-centered.”

The Manhood Development Program has three areas of focus, Chatmon says: “Understanding who you are as an African-American student and an African-American male,” to “really feel a brotherhood” among classmates, and to boost academic achievement through studying vocabulary and reading culturally relevant texts.

The program was piloted in the spring of 2011, and its first full run was during the subsequent school year. The five-day, in-school elective course began with 50 students at three schools in its first year and grew to 450 students at 15 schools today, expanding from high schools to middle and elementary schools. Staff choose students for each class based on interest, and with a goal to create a group with equal numbers of students on track to go to college, students who are struggling, and another group of students who fall somewhere in between.

In each class, an instructor greets students at the door with a handshake the students have created. Classes have a word and question of the day. Students delve into African-American and African history. They learn about drumming as a communication tool in Africa; they learn what a dung beetle is. They read books like the biography of Malcolm X. While the students call their teachers “brothers,” the teachers call the students “kings.”

Lamar Hancock teaches this class at Oakland Technical High School and, like Jennings, he checks in regularly with his students about their grades as part of the program. He says one of his biggest challenges is getting buy-in from the students. “These young men are being tested all the time—they have to be hard, they have to be tough, they have to be dominant,” Hancock said. “The idea or concept of being smart isn’t cool. … If you’re smart or you’re intelligent, you know how to speak well, you’re labeled as a nerd or a sucker.”

Hancock said when a student walks into his classroom with those notions, he needs to work quickly to dispel them. He is creative about making academic achievement cool. He associates attaining high GPAs with sports (“To be eligible for the NCAA you have to have a minimum of 2.5 GPA”), or a love relationship (“No woman wants a guy who’s below average”), or music, or, he said, “lavish stuff like houses, cars. Because I think that’s how they identify.” Students, he said, have to “be able to have the language, got to be able to write, got to have the grades if you expect to at least live a good life. So why not push forward?”

On a recent Friday in Hancock’s classroom, after their teacher greeted each student with a handshake at the door (two claps, two fist bumps, a hand grab, a pinkie shake, a wipe of the shoes, and a salute), students entered the classroom, boisterously talking and playing around in this last class before the weekend. Hancock called for their attention and greeted them with a call and repeat starting with the ancient Egyptian word for “peace:” “Hotep/ Oh my immortal soul/ Rise up within me/ and crown my personality/ with wisdom, courage, and a glorious ride.”

Next came a student-created check-in question for everyone to answer out loud: “What is your definition of the meaning of life?” The day’s main assignment was to reflect on the recent protests over grand juries failing to indict white police officers for the deaths of African-American men Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Hancock assigned students the task of creating an analog version of a Twitter account on sheets of large white paper that could later be displayed in the school hallways. One student wrote, “What if the roles were reversed? #statenisland #ericgarner #docopseverthink.”

Surako Follings, a sophomore, reflected for a moment away from the class exercise. He said he likes the class a lot—it’s made him more interested in history, he’s not afraid of using big words, he loved reading about Malcolm X. And he’s matured. He said of Hancock, “He’s teaching me to be a man.”

Tyree DeJuan Davis, his classmate, is a freshman who said some of his favorite conversations are the practical ones. “The N-word that we are not supposed to use is the most powerful thing I know, because it is offensive to us,” Davis said. “You can’t use a word if you don’t know what it means,” adding that a lot of people don’t know the real meaning of the word. He also thought their class about “how to talk to a cop” was helpful.

When asked about the feeling among his fellow students, Davis said, “They are just kind and loving brothers to me.” When Davis struggles in the class, or gets too hyper, he said, his classmates work to calm him down to prevent him from getting reprimanded by Hancock. They are “always there beside me,” he said.

As the AAMA enters its fifth year, it will roll out a series of reports on its work, the first two to come during their “Community Report Back” on January 15 at the Impact Hub Oakland. These two reports, “Black Sonrise,” and “Lean Into the Wind,” will review the development of the program, its successes, and the office’s strategic plans for the future. A final report covering other issues AAMA tackles, such as assessing how schools and instructors teach about racial bias, will come out in February.

According to the office, of the 56 students enrolled in MDP’s first year who are set to graduate in 2015, 19 are on track to meet eligibility requirements to attend a California State University or the University of California. This number is six percent higher than that for African-American students who did not participate in the program. Survey results in “Black Sonrise” show that the majority of students in the class feel “proud to be a young Black male,” and that it makes them “want to be successful in school.” Grade point averages are 25 percent higher for students in the program (at 2.12) than they are for those not enrolled (1.7), even though the demographic they serve is similar. And according to the district’s “Balanced Scorecard,” a summary of numerical data compared across years that is separate from the AAMA reports, suspension rates for African-American boys district-wide have decreased by 43 percent in the past four years.

The reports also bring up program weaknesses and plans for improvement. According to “Lean Into the Wind,” the MDP, “seemingly because of its inclusion of social, emotional, and cultural pedagogy, has dealt with the perception or label that it is not strongly rooted in academics. The term ‘fluffy’ has been used to describe the curriculum or third party critiques of the curriculum more than once.” The office has already worked to improve the academic focus of the course, and to accredit their instructors to meet standards for regular teachers. After the first year, they revamped the curriculum to meet state standards, and added an extensive reading list, “literacy circles”—group activities focused on improving reading and writing—and the introduction of academic vocabulary to classes.

Chatmon and his team plan to expand the program by offering it at more schools and to greater numbers of younger students. According to “Lean Into the Wind,” “The achievement gap is readily apparent for African American boys as early as Kindergarten-3rd grade. It is unrealistic to expect MDP classes to significantly raise the literacy levels of MDP students if they are not reaching the students until their teenage years.”

In the future, Chatmon would like to create a district “Office of Equity,” which could also house groups dedicated to the social and academic needs of Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and African-American girls. There are more similarities in working with these groups than there are differences, Chatman said, as African-American boys are not the only group with limited access to opportunities. And while AAMA works with African-American boys, it “doesn’t stop anybody from supporting other groups,” Chatmon said.

AAMA staff also plans to increase the use of data to measure program effects, further engage parents in their work, and provide more professional development for staff and teachers across the district.

Back at Montera Middle School, Michael Johnson’s class is over, but he and a few other students linger in their portable classroom after they put their journals away on a shelf next to posters of famous African-American men. They want to look at their GPAs on teacher Kevin Jenning’s computer. Johnson’s GPA is now a 3.8, which is somewhere between an A and an A-, up from a 2.0, or C average, before he enrolled in the program.

He attributes this increase to the classes, and to Jennings regularly checking in on him. His confidence is up, Johnson says, because his teacher is always boosting it, feeding him the positive messages he says he misses at home. “Every day, he always tells me that I do matter and that my place on Earth actually does matter,” says Johnson, “and that I can make a difference.”

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