Race is not a taboo subject for Anthony “Tony” Smith, superintendent of the Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District.
“The effects of oppression and racism are real and deep,” says Smith, who is white, “and we’re not going to recover or heal immediately.”
Smith believes that schools must confront racial problems head on, and to that end, one of his first major initiatives on the job was creating a cabinet-level post to oversee African- American male achievement.
About one-third of Oakland Unified’s students are black, and the boys are the district’s lowest performers. For example, 28 percent of African-American males districtwide scored proficient or higher on the state’s language arts exam in 2009-2010, compared with 78 percent of white males.
Christopher Chatmon, who leads Smith’s African-American male achievement initiative, is charged in part with upping the passing rate to 90 percent in five years, improving school attendance, and cutting incarceration rates in half.
Last semester, Chatmon piloted at a handful of high schools a “man up” life-skills class for black male students who were chronically absent, teaching them to navigate the public school system.
Attendance improved by about 80 percent, he says, results that encouraged him to expand the program to at-risk black and Latino students at six high schools and two middle schools in the coming school year.
Chatmon also organizes quarterly conferences, inviting black community members to serve as role models and mentors for the students. Chatmon, who is black, says Smith has earned the respect of the community, although his initiative drew critics from folks of all races.
“If he’s not speaking at a black church, he’s at a quincea?era,” Chatmon said, referring to the traditional party for 15-year-old Latina girls. “Just as much as he’s leading at a board meeting, you’ll see him at a soccer game or a community meeting.”