A top official with the Obama Administration’s new initiative to help African American and Latino boys came to Oakland on Tuesday to get some ideas from the school district’s African American Male Achievement Initiative.

David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans, said Oakland schools have strategies that “My Brother’s Keeper” hopes to learn from.

As he toured Oakland High School and talked with students in the school’s African American Male Achievement manhood development class there as well as with teachers and AAMA administrators, he said problems in Oakland are reflected in most big cities.

When President Obama announced “My Brother’s Keeper” on Feb. 27 he spoke of how young African American men are disproportionately the victims of murders and, as boys, disproportionately falling behind in school. Too many do not have fathers or male adult mentors in their lives, he said.

Four years ago, Oakland Unified School District launched the African American Male Achievement Initiative to try to turn around alarmingly high rates of dropping out, absenteeism and suspensions, particularly among African American boy students. The hope, too, was to rescue them from the street violence and homicides that victimize these young men far more than any other demographic.

Johns said very few school districts have such programs as the AAMA, although numerous community organizations around the country have started initiatives to help boys of color. “I’m from LA. and intimately familiar with the problem and with what Oakland is doing,” he said.

While Oakland’s AAMA program has made a great strides – cutting suspensions in half and improving graduation rates for this group of students as well as providing them with mentors – the boys Johns met with at Oakland High School described tough situations.

“They talked about waking up to the sound of gun shots every day,” he said of his private meeting with a class of boys. They told Johns they were tired of being regarded as threatening by people who walk by, and of being data points instead of individuals. “They said ‘see me for who I am.” And they wanted more teachers who are African American.

In 2010, when Oakland’s AAMA program was launched, only 45 percent of the black young men in Oakland Unified School District were found to be on track towards high school graduation, according to a study done for the district by the Urban Strategies Council. Heavy use of suspensions as a school discipline tool, high absenteeism and a lack of attention to the social and emotional needs of black boys were found to be major culprits, aggravating what poverty was doing to take opportunities from these boys.

Back then OUSD was suspending one-fifth of its African American male students every year, including one third of the middle school boys. Less than half of the high school African American freshmen boys in Oakland’s schools were graduating four years later.

Since AAMA began, “Suspensions are half of what they were and graduation is up by 8 percent for black males,” said Chris Chatmon, the executive director of AAMA and creator of the manhood development classes.

“To have the White House lift up and actually take lessons from,” our experience “just shows the importance of what we called out four years ago,” Chatmon said.

aamakeep2 Obama aide David Johns talks with Chris Chatmon, head of Oakland’s AAMA, and a student

Yet he also describes it as a long haul to change practices and cultural attitudes in an entire school system where teachers resorted easily to suspensions, and to engage and encourage boys who have so often been discouraged.

Even as the President’s aide toured the school, a young man who had just listened to him in class came up to tell him he was suspended this week by one of his teachers. The cause? He missed assembly so he could do what his high school baseball coach said and get over to the interscholastic game scheduled that afternoon.

The visitor as well as several administrators and reporters standing around seemed shocked that suspensions were still dished out so casually at the school. Another teacher said he would talk to that teacher and try to advocate on behalf of the student.

Oakland Unified’s program is funded by outside organizations, including The San Francisco Foundation and others, and not by the school district. Chatmon recruits professionals in business, law, science and education to be mentors to the young men in his manhood development classes. All the mentors are African American men who have succeeded.

“Oakland Unified took a chance on a new kind of civil rights initiative,” said Lisa Villarreal, Education Program Officer at The San Francisco Foundation. “In two short years we are seeing dramatic results.”

President Obama said he hopes that philanthropic organizations will step up to help him craft plans and programs to lift up African American boys to their full academic and life happiness potential as well as invest in school programs and recreational programs and social and mental health.

About The Author

Barbara Grady is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can reach her at barbara@oaklandlocal.com

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