For high school sophomore Anthony Johnson, the African American Male Achievement program spurred him to become a more serious student with a career goal in mind and less prone to anger, he said. For Enoch Hankins, it meant becoming a B+ student instead of a C+ student. For Lionel White it provided mentors and friends he could talk with about the myriad issues of growing up.
For 2,500 of Oakland’s African-American boys, the African American Male Achievement Initiative in Oakland public schools has meant they are less likely to be suspended, more likely to achieve good grades, and more likely to graduate high school. For all of them, it has meant having mentors who are successful African-American men who care about them and where they are headed.
“I always have someone who wants me to do well,” Johnson said.
This ground-breaking initiative of the Oakland Unified School District appears to be paying significant dividends.
In one year, 2012 to 2013, suspensions of African-American boys dropped from 21 percent to 14 percent, while some schools have eliminated suspensions altogether. The graduation rate of the District’s African-American high school boys rose to more than 50 percent graduating in 2012 compared to 46 percent two years earlier. Beyond the statistics, the AAMA initiative has provided a vehicle to “engage, encourage and empower” these young men, helping them believe in themselves and their futures, said Chris Chatmon, its executive director.
Delivering a “Community Report Back” on the program, Chatmon both exulted in progress and lamented that the needs are still great.
”I am humbled every day by the urgency of the need to show up,” Chatmon said to an assembly of families, teachers, administrators and students who came to hear the Report Back one night last week in a school auditorium.
“A mother in Oakland loses her whole family,” in three weeks, he continued, head bowed, referring to the latest tragic death of a promising African-American youth, when college-going Lamar Broussard was fatally shot just three weeks after his 13-year old brother was gunned down in an inexplicable act of senseless violence. “I want to acknowledge all of those children who aren’t here to be celebrated,” he said.
The Oakland Unified School District launched the African American Male Achievement Initiative in 2010, amid signs that the fates and fortunes of boys who were African-American were pretty bleak. Many were, and still are, vulnerable to street violence and gang life. Too many were dropping out of high school, often after a middle-school experience of frequent suspensions, some for simple acts of defiance. In the youngest grades, one in five were chronically absent from school.
At the time the program launched, one in five African-American boys were being suspended each year from Oakland schools while only about 46 percent of male African-American high school students were graduating. According to the Urban Strategies Council, which did research for the district to access the status of African-American boys in this district, by the 8th grade, half of these boys were off track to graduate from high school. Indeed, the outcomes for African-American males in Oakland led the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights to launch an investigation into bias on the use of suspensions for discipline.
Recognizing the school district was failing these children and not delivering on its obligation to provide all students a good education, then-Superintendent Tony Smith launched the African American Male Achievement Initiative. Its first phase, Chatmon reminded, was discovery and research, to see just how African-American boys were faring in OUSD, then there was a research and development of strategy phase, and finally implementation in the last two years.
About 2,500 kids have been enrolled in Manhood Development classes through the AAMA Initiative and assigned mentors. About 200 teachers have received training in cultural understanding, and about 700 parents have been engaged, either through parent workshops or just communications from the program. “We help build the capacity of parents,” said parent coordinator Kim Shipp. “We run workshops on realizing the college dream,” and how parents can support their sons.
In the halls of Tilden Auditorium, where the Report Back took place, smiling and proud young men told of their academic achievements and their future plans.
“Last year I had like a 2.2 GPA now I have a 3.2,” said Enoch Hankins of Oakland High School. “I’m headed for college.”
Giovante Bull of Fremont High School spoke about former South African president Nelson Mandela and said “A lot of black people helped us be the people we are today,” and he has been busy researching their biographies.
Students at Montera Middle School showed off journals they create in their program. Suspensions there have fallen to being nearly non-existent.