Saturday, November 15, 2014

School Districts Copy Oakland's Black Male Achievement Program

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- New data shows the Oakland Unified School District's office of African American Male Achievement is starting to turn around decades of failure for young black men, a development prompting the office to document its formula for others around the country to copy. 

The district is paying consultants about $90,000 to put in writing the program's best practices around discipline, racism and academics for young black males that its director says is paying off four years after it started. 

"This will be our most comprehensive report yet on how our program addresses structural racism in the Oakland Unified School District," said Christopher Chatmon, director of the office, which now has a $1.2 million budget. 

Chatmon said since the office was first conceived in 2010, the dismal graduation rate of 6,500 African-American boys has risen from 42 percent to 57 percent, and the rate of high school sophomores who pass the high school exit exam has increased from 28 percent to 38 percent. 

Chatmon said in just the last six months, he met with the executive staff of San Francisco Unified School District, the school board and parents of Antioch Unified School District, and staff at Minneapolis Public Schools in Minnesota to show them what he has done in Oakland. 

This fall Minneapolis Public Schools opened an Office of Black Male Student Achievement, with a startup budget of $200,000. 

Chatmon said when he started in 2010, he knew it would take at least 10 years to bring "true systems change" to the school district, so in addition to working on districtwide policy, his office launched elective manhood development classes for African-American males that now have an approved curriculum and certified teachers. About 650 boys take the classes, he said. 

"We needed something immediately from day one, and now those classes are in 16 schools," he said. 

Vajra Watson, director of research and policy for equity in the UC Davis chancellor's office who will be doing some of the documentation work for the Oakland office, said other school districts, like Minneapolis, want to do the same thing, but they need a road map to get started. 

"If you're a school superintendent in Kansas or Yolo County and you want to heed this call and look at the data and respond, this work will say, 'Here's what you can do,'" Watson said. "School superintendents really have been waiting for some kind of blueprint to follow on this." 

Watson said she has been interviewing some of the 650 students in the Oakland manhood development programs and found that the office's work has helped them change the way they feel about themselves. 

"I surveyed hundreds of students when they first started the program and asked them, 'What does it mean to be a black male in America?'" Watson said. "All those boys described being menaced by society and used negative words to describe how they were being treated in schools. After they went through the manhood development classes, you start to see this reconceptualization of who they are. They talk about how important it is to be black and smart. They are redefining what it means to be black men." 

Chatmon agreed and said one thing the data, which has plenty of room to go up, does not point to is the change in "spirit" in young black men in Oakland schools. 

"The year the department was created we came into a culture that had normalized the failure of African-American children," Chatmon said. "It went from a negative deficit model to one that's more filled with hope." 

In her report Watson also plans to make recommendations to the district on how to better "leverage change for kids still falling through the cracks, and the kids who are still caught in that life of stealing and robbing."

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