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Pride, history boost African-American achievement

Oakland USD's Office of African American Male Achievement develops sense of pride and identity in black male student community
Students served by Oakland USD’s Office of African American Male Achievement have increased GPAs compared to their peers.
Students served by Oakland USD’s Office of African American Male Achievement have increased GPAs compared to their peers.

Since 2002, African-American men and boys in Oakland, California, are about as likely to be shot to death as they are to graduate high school ready to attend a state university, according to state education and police data.

Black male students also faced disproportionately high numbers of suspensions, and experienced low achievement and graduation rates—statistics mirrored in schools nationwide.

In 2010, Oakland USD created the Office of African American Male Achievement to develop a sense of pride and identity in the black male student community, in hopes of raising achievement and eliminating harmful discipline policies. Now, other large districts across the nation are following suit to close achievement gaps and to help this population reach college- and career-readiness.

“We were in an environment in which every conversation having to do with black boys was always based on deficiencies,” says Christopher Chatmon, executive director of the Office of African American Male Achievement. “We had to change that.”

The office was recently recognized by President Barack Obama in support of his 2014 My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which calls on local governments to do more to help young men of color succeed in school and in the workforce.

Last August, Minneapolis Public Schools created a similar Office of Black Male Student Achievement. This past January, District of Columbia Public School Chancellor Kaya Henderson helped launch a $20 million program called Empowering Males of Color.

It has several goals: Create an all-male college preparatory high school, a mentoring program, and grant funding for local schools in hopes of closing one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps.

And in February, San Francisco USD created a special position of assistant for African-American achievement and leadership improve the success of black students.

Success in Oakland

When Oakland’s Office of African American Male Achievement opened, one out of three black middle school students and one out of six black high school students were suspended each year. The graduation rate for African-American males was 40 percent.

Some 650 Oakland middle and high school students now take electives in African-American history and literature that the office developed. Chatmon created a course called Manhood Development, which teaches students that they are valued even when society tries to stereotype them. It also touches on family, values and future planning. Students in these courses have an average GPA of 2.12, compared to their peers’ 1.7.

Last year, the African-American graduation rate rose to 57 percent. Suspension rates were reduced by 43 percent, in part due to new restorative justice policies that replaced zero-tolerance discipline.

The office is funded entirely by private foundations. Last year’s $1.2 million budget supported programming and a staff of 40.

Starting a program

In Minneapolis Public Schools, just 15 percent of African-American eighth-graders scored proficient on national math tests last year—compared to 54 percent of their white peers. The district allocated a $200,000 start-up budget in 2014-15 to launch the Office of Black Male Student Achievement.

Upon starting the job, director Michael Walker visited community events, barbershops and local restaurants to speak with over 700 people about how the schools can help black males succeed.

“The community didn’t believe that our schools were serving all students,” Walker says. “We want parents to believe educators are fair-minded; for educators to feel they have the tools to help these students succeed; and for black men to see academic success in their future.”

The focus of the office’s inaugural year includes PD for all staff members to change attitudes about African-American students. The training will include how to build relationships with students, and how to make curriculum more relevant.

Teachers work in small research groups, discussing classroom strategies for equity. Walker also created electives—similar to those in Oakland—in one middle and one high school. He plans to expand the courses to all high schools next year, he says.

These programs can only succeed when African-Americans are viewed as school assets, rather than troubled students.

“First administrators have to be willing to have the conversation, which is the hardest part because it’s uncomfortable,” Walker says. “All changes start with the adults and how our biases play out when interacting in the classroom.”