BERKELEY -- Progress in improving the abysmal academic outcomes of Oakland's young black men has been painstakingly slow in the three years since the school district created an office specifically to lift them up, but a flood of new money this year has officials hoping a small upward trend gains momentum.
"We are just at the tip of the iceberg around these things," said Oakland school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge during a recent meeting on funding for the program, specifically for bringing down suspensions of young black men. "Just three years is not going to change structural racism that has existed for hundreds of years. This brother's work cannot go down the drain based on an insidious system."
This brother is Chris Chatmon, executive director of the office of African American Male Achievement, which opened its doors in 2010. His program uses Manhood Development as its cornerstone for success, classes that try to teach character development by learning responsibility and respect. They also give the students, who historically have been beaten down by poverty and racism, a kind of daily pep talk.
In the last three years since Chatmon started it, the fate of young black men has shown a tiny glimmer of hope.
For example, the number of African-American males graduating Oakland high schools went from 45 percent to 50 percent, the dropout rate went from 36 percent to 30 percent, chronic absenteeism went from 23 percent to 18 percent and suspensions went from 18 percent to 11 percent.
While showing a positive trend, the numbers are nowhere near the five-year goals Chatmon set for the program: a graduation rate of 98 percent, chronic absenteeism down to 6 percent, suspensions down to 5 percent and bringing English and Math proficiency up from around 30 percent to 90 percent. (The district was unable to produce any recent test score data for African American males.)
"When people asked me 'Are these goals realistic?' I said 'that's part of the problem, our expectations as a system are far too low,'" Chatmon said. "If we fall short in five years, we find out what we have learned and use the data to say what we need to do differently. We gotta raise the expectations and keep the bar high.
"You do not lower the goals," he continued. "I'm sticking by those goals we set in the beginning."
But Oakland school Board President David Kakishiba said the goals of the program may have been set too high. In any case, he is sticking by the effort and hopes to see progress.
"My personal opinion is that we're holding the entire school district accountable, not just the office of African American Male Achievement," Kakishiba said. "If that office set a goal of 98 percent graduation rate over five years, maybe we made a mistake. Last December the school board set a goal of 1 percent increase in the graduation rate for all students and that's too low. So we've gone from one extreme to another, and now we're getting real, all the while still trying to figure out the strategies that will get us to the improvements, and frankly, I think the district is still learning."
Until now, Chatmon has staked the fate of the approximately 6,800 young black boys in the district almost solely on the Manhood Development classes.
Those classes will get a boost this year as private funding for Chatmon's office has gone from $400,000 a year to $600,000 a year for the next three years. And just last week the school board approved a one-time infusion of $700,000 to bring down the disproportionate numbers of young black males getting suspended at 38 schools as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
(The office turned down a Freedom of Information Act Request filed by Bay Area News Group to see documents related to that agreement, saying their publication could interfere with "enforcement proceedings" and could "warrant an invasion of privacy" on individuals named in them.)
With the new money coming his way, Chatmon plans to expand the Manhood Development classes from eight high schools and five middle schools to three more, do new training with school security guards and school staff with the focus on suspending fewer black males and hiring three new employees for a total of four to help schools expand restorative justice programs as an alternative to suspensions.
Even with all the new money being pumped into the program, the school district's 2,400 unionized teachers still have questions about whether it will work. The union was behind a recent demand that all Manhood Development teachers get their credentials for teaching in a year, a move Chatmon saw as "unreasonable." There are currently 16 Manhood Development teachers in the program and about half have their teaching credentials, he said.
"I think it's a worthy project to have in our schools, but I don't really know what the end result has been after three years," said Oakland teacher's union president Trish Gorham. "My teachers at the schools where the Manhood Development classes are held don't have a clear idea about what's going on in those programs. We also asked for a curriculum guide or materials at the end of last year, and they said they were developing it, but we still haven't received it. I'm not clear about what else is happening in that department. It's a question mark, really."
All eyes are clearly on the program and tensions about it can run high.
"If you're a critic, I say come with a plan," said Jahi, who uses just one name and who is the lead Manhood Development class instructor at Claremont Middle School who spoke at a recent town hall forum on the program. "This is an opportunity to roll up your sleeves and help."
He said at times the Manhood Development teachers are simply doing daily triage.
"We don't start off the day with disparaging statistics," he said. "Today I had one student show up to school at 8 a.m. and he was late for his first period class that started at 8:30. So we had a talk about being responsible. In class we then asked the question: What are you responsible for? And one of the answers was, 'my hygiene,' so we went from there."
Oakland schools spokesman Troy Flint said people who question the existence of the program don't have a good understanding of the problem.
"One of the questions I often get is 'Why do you have to have an office of African American Male Achievement, why is there a need for it?' Flint said. "There is a crisis in education, particularly in Oakland involving black males. We have to work overtime to rectify a situation that is completely out of control."
For his part, Chatmon sees his work as more than just five years of goals.
"When we started in 2010, there was no office of African American Male Achievement," Chatmon said. "Three years ago we couldn't even go into the central office and ask how African American children were doing. We had to create everything. There was no handbook, no manual. This is a marathon."
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley.