OAKLAND -- It was a long but invigorating day for about 200 African American boys at Montera Middle School, who attended the "Man-Up" summit.

The all-day seminar on Jan. 31 focused on the development of life skills that will benefit the students in their academic and social lives.

The summit was created in response to the federal investigation of Oakland public schools about the disproportionately high rate of suspensions among African American males.

"We need this now," said Principal Tina Tranzor. "Although this was supposed to be a planning year, we decided to address and celebrate our boys this year.

"We need to do something positive for our boys and shift our thinking. I hope they walk away from this with a different sense of self," Tranzor said.

"Man-Up" conferences have been held in the district since 2010, said Chris Chatmon, the executive director of African American Male Achievement for the Oakland Unified School District.

"The program provides an opportunity for young brothers to learn about their history and how to navigate through their day with adults that may not have the patience to listen to them and to develop life skills and a plan for college and careers," Chatmon said.

The program was adapted to meet Montera's needs by Tranzor and a team of parents including Dawn King, Nashormeh Lindo and Parent Teacher Organization Co-President John Wade.

The program targets students with low test scores. Although it's not limited specifically to this group, many African- American boys fell into this category, Tranzor said. Children were also allowed to self-identify and attend the summit.

"Positive role models are not found in the traditional places," pointed out attorney Kevin Harden, one of the keynote speakers for the event.

Harden shared his story about how he transformed his life from being a drug dealer to an attorney for the district attorney's office in Philadelphia.

"I'm not glad I was shot," Harden told the boys. "I'm glad I got up. Not everybody gets a second chance."

Other guests included rap artist Dwight Taylor, known as "Transparent," affiliated with the nonprofit organization "Beyond the Locker." Taylor belted out motivational raps.

"Be the best at what you are doing now," Taylor told the boys. "There's a call in your life that says you can be great, but you have to respond ... If people don't have your best interests in mind, they're not for you."

"I learned to never let anybody stop me from doing what I want to do and to think before making decisions," said eighth-grader Regis Bridges.

"I've learned that greatness is in all of us, and not to let anybody bring me down," said eighth-grader Michael Robinson. "I've learned to make wiser decisions and start doing my homework."

"I think the idea was a good concept," said Dawn King, the parent of a sixth- and eighth-grader. "It spoke to everyone. Everyone can relate to something in this. It's exciting to empower the kids."

King's son, Trevor King, agreed.

"I think it was a good thing," King said. "It gave me a different view on things and another way of looking at life."

This is only the beginning for Montera. Tranzor is planning how to involve the whole Montera community in the process, including potential seminars for girls, parent empowerment and support for teachers. In the meantime, according to Chatmon, follow-up classes to the summit are due to start sometime in the next couple of weeks at the school.

---