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

Study: OUSD program succeeds in boosting Black male student achievement

on November 19, 2019

Researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Irvine released a study last month regarding an Oakland Unified School District program focused on boosting achievement for Black male students. The study showed that the program has led to an increase in graduation and retention rates among participating students over the last dozen years.

Researchers Thomas Dee and Emily Penner, both education professors, used data from the California Department of Education to analyze student drop-out rates from 2005 through 2017 in nine OUSD high schools. The study showed that students who had access to the district’s African American Male Achievement Program (AAMA) had higher year-to-year retention rates—a 3.6 percent increase in the number of students who stayed in school after the program was implemented. Black male students who had access to the program in 9th and 10th grade had a higher likelihood of graduating—a 3.2 percent increase. 

AAMA launched in 2010 as an initiative to focus the district’s resources on its lowest-performing group, Black male students. At that time, they were twice as likely to be chronically absent from school as other students, five times as likely to be suspended and scored lower in English and math on standardized tests.

Over time, the program turned into its own office, and then eventually transformed into the OUSD Office of Equity. This office now houses AAMA and several other targeted programs, including Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement and African American Female Excellence.

“Oakland Unified School District had a history of really underserving African American males in particular, and wanted to do something really radically different,” said Christopher Chatmon, founding executive director of AAMA and now the deputy chief for the Office of Equity. The goal, he said, was not to “locate the problem with the child, but really look at the system, the structure, the conditions that have been created, and a culture that really had normalized failure for Black boys a big way.”

The AAMA program has several facets, including a student leadership council, an annual intergenerational conference called ManUp!—where students from elementary to high school get together to meet with mentors, eat, exercise and learn about Black manhood—and an in-class curriculum called the Manhood Development Program, which teaches subjects like history and English through the lens of race.The curriculum aligns with state and district standards, but developers adapted classes to make them especially relevant to Black male students, focusing on Pan-African history and the African diaspora. They offer classes like “African American Power in the United States” as a 10th grade U.S. history course and “Arguments for Freedom” for an English credit. 

Another course, “Mastering Our Cultural Identity and the African American Male Image,” is an elective, offered from 4th through 12th grade. Chatmon said that course is the foundation for the entire program. It allows students to examine the social discourse about Black boys and equips them with the skills to deconstruct arguments that may be used to hold them back. 

Each day, when students enter the classroom, their teachers invite them in with a unique handshake—the instructors and the students typically create their own, a nod to what Chatmon calls “the historical significance of handshakes in the African American experience.” As the instructors greet the students, they call them “kings.” They kick off the class with a word of the day—talking about the difference in context and meaning in English versus Swahili, perhaps—and then analyze a quote by a notable Black figure. 

The environment is familial by design. Chatmon said the program is set up so “the teacher is facilitating a process where the kids are supporting each other.” He calls it a “pedagogy of brotherhood.”

Today, the program serves 750 students across nine elementary schools, four middle schools, and eight high schools. The Student Leadership Council includes members from grades 6-12 who travel across the U.S. to present about the program at conferences, school board meetings and once at the White House. As part of his “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative,” launched in 2014, former President Barack Obama recognized AAMA as a notable program other districts should consider a best practice. 

Meanwhile, at Stanford and UC Irvine, education professor Thomas Dee and his co-researchers were beginning to study AAMA because they were interested in the program’s specificity—particularly the way it focused on the achievement of a group of students.

And figuring out how to boost student achievement has been an important question for educators nationwide over the past two decades. In 2001, Congress passed the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which sought to hold schools accountable for student achievement, using scores on standardized tests as a measure, along with sometimes-arbitrary proficiency standards. Public schools were pressured to produce high test scores, or else they would have to restructure their curriculum, staffing and supplemental resources offered to students.  

Over the years, these policies came under fire, and state and federal governments began rolling back these prescriptive educational policies. In 2012, Obama signed waivers for 25 states, granting them some flexibility regarding the No Child Left Behind requirements, provided they raised state educational standards and undertook reforms through different methods. (California was not one of those states.)

Dee said the rollback of state and federal accountability standards means individual districts have the opportunity to come up with their own systems for increasing student achievement and metrics for gauging progress. He and his colleagues chose to focus on Oakland because, he said, “That’s where the innovation is,” particularly in regard to bridging achievement gaps among underrepresented student populations.

Dee was particularly interested in AAMA’s use of “targeted universalism,” or the idea that focusing on the success of one group can help the entire school perform better. “I was unaware of this concept, and I think it’s not well known in policy, researcher and academic circles,” Dee said. “It’s something that has come up more from an activist community, but it’s basically a different kind of design principle for achieving equity. The argument is that policies that are simply targeted might be effective.”

The Stanford/UC Irvine study seems to support that idea. The authors noted what they call apparent “spillover effects” for Black female students, meaning girls who didn’t actually participate in the AAMA program showed significant gains when the program was available to their Black male classmates. The study showed a year-over-year retention rate increase of 1.8 percent among Black female students at schools with AAMA curriculum. 

The study attributes the overall success of the program to factors including its district-wide scale, providing academic and social support to students, “the academic benefits of having same-race teachers, attending schools that exclusively serve Black or male students, and having access to culturally relevant pedagogy.”

Dee said the program effectively makes students feel like school is a place where they belong, and where they’re respected. He also said having the program available at transitional years—like 6th and 9th grade—catches students at a particularly vulnerable time. “Because students’ social identities are particularly malleable during these first two years of high school, this suggests that the AAMA is successful in supporting positive identity development,” the study concludes.

Dee also added that a 3 percent increase in graduation rates—while seemingly small—is actually quite noteworthy. “I think most researchers would view this as a large, but not implausibly so, increase,” he wrote in an email. Black male students in OUSD currently have a graduation rate of about 69 percent. “In other words, 31 percent don’t graduate. A three percentage-point reduction in this dropout rate is not trivial,” Dee said.

Chatmon said he thinks the study is substantive and historically relevant, but he doesn’t think it measures everything that’s important about the way AAMA helps students. He said studying metrics like chronic absences and graduation rates doesn’t take into account the nuances of the cultural or social forces that can stand in a student’s way. 

“It is powerful to actually have the institution validate our work,” Chatmon said. “Yet we also know that if you’re not looking at cultural identity and self-advocacy, if you’re not tracking other metrics that are not the traditional ways of learning and processing that privileges a certain profile, we have to round that out. Part of changing the system is to look at cultural identity.”

Dee acknowledged the limitations of quantitative research, saying his study is meant to be taken in the context of other studies that have also focused on targeted programs. However, he said what his study can do is pinpoint measurable factors like cost-effectiveness. He said that because AAMA students are taught in classrooms by school staff during the school day, the program is notably cost-effective. Other programs may pull students out of class to participate in therapy sessions or bring students in for programming on the weekend, all of which generate new costs for a district.

Despite the low costs associated with the program, Chatmon said he feels some financial strain. Every year for the last four years, amid a districtwide belt-tightening, all of the programs in the Office of Equity have experienced budget cuts, he said. “We haven’t had the sort of consistency, continuity and investment in this sort of work in the 10 years it’s been going,” Chatmon said. “So the report actually does give a little life—and hopefully some resources.”

The study’s results also support the feelings some graduates of the program have had about their experiences.

Amin Robinson graduated from Oakland High School in 2018. Right now, he’s a student at Laney College, trying to figure out his major. He tried architecture—he’s an artist—but he didn’t love the math part. Now he’s thinking about going into education. 

He took his first class through AAMA in 9th grade. He was curious because “it seemed like a nice environment for a young Black person like myself,” he said. “The teacher was welcoming towards me, he addressed me as a king. He invited me to his classroom. Most teachers, they either like, didn’t acknowledge me. And if they did, they weren’t as kind as this.”

“The curriculum itself was very transforming” for him, Robinson said, allowing him to think about how Black men are portrayed in the media, how he defines manhood, how society had decided who he was before he even knew who he was. 

He was part of the Student Leadership Council. He traveled to New York, New Orleans and Seattle to spread the word about the program and help districts set up their own ManUp! conferences and Manhood Development curricula. His senior year, he flew to Washington D.C. to lobby for funds for the program. “An experience like that changed my perception of what I could do, what was the highest peak that I could reach—it helped me get higher, try to achieve more, try to strive for more,” Robinson said. 

But at the beginning of Robinson’s senior year, he was assaulted at his brother’s birthday party. He began experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and had to take time off from school, overwhelmed by settings with too many people. While he was out, he received text messages and phone calls from AAMA teachers and classmates checking in on him, sending him pictures of what was going on in the classroom. It made him feel like school was a place where he was wanted and missed.

When he returned to school in January, his vice principal told him he should consider transferring to a continuation school instead of graduating with the rest of his peers. But Robinson said his AAMA teachers told him that was not going to happen—they believed he could complete his coursework and graduate on time. When one of his other teachers didn’t want him to present his final project because he had been out for so long, his AAMA teachers urged their colleague to give Robinson a chance. He ended up getting 92 percent on the project—an A. And he received his diploma that May, along with his classmates. He was even chosen to be the speaker at the graduation ceremony.

Robinson said without the support he received from his AAMA teachers and classmates, he wouldn’t have graduated. “It felt really good for me to let my teachers and my mentors know that the effort they put into me, it wasn’t wasted,” Robinson said. “And that also, because I’m a young Black boy, you can’t let your biases or whatever you believe about people dictate how you treat them in the classroom.”

Photo: Chris Chatmon is the executive director of the African American Male Achievement Initiative. Photo by Laura Klivans in 2014.

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