ANTIOCH -- This school district is taking a hard look at ways to increase academic achievement and decrease suspensions among its African-American male students.

Antioch Unified officials presented data at a recent board meeting showing the group's proficiency rate in state testing for math and language arts last spring was about 14 percent below the district average. Meanwhile, 71 percent of black males met graduation requirements, compared with 86 percent of all other males in the district.

"This is a problem that is not unique to Antioch, but I think we're trying to take a bold move to address it," board president Joy Motts said.

"The district is finally recognizing that there is a problem and is taking ownership," added Willie Mims, a member of local chapters of the Black Political Association and NAACP, and watchdog of the district's dealings with race. "I have to commend them for that report and taking that first move."

The Antioch school district has the largest proportion of African-American students in Contra Costa County, with 24.2 percent. The proportion was 13 percent in 2000, most moving from urban areas such as Richmond and Oakland.

"It's not a question of equality, but of equity," said Stephanie Anello, associate superintendent of educational services. "It's a pattern that we've seen in public education for far too long, but it has not been adequately addressed."

Lamont Francies, a counselor at Antioch Middle school who previously worked at West Oakland middle school and Oakland's McClymonds High, says that the district's system has not caught up to the cultural changes.

The classroom needs to go away from a model based on traditional white, middle-class values and look more toward issues of social justice and real-life experiences to keep students engaged, he said.

"When kids are engaged, behavior problems will go down," Francies said.

Without that connection, often times the student will think the teacher doesn't like them and "sabotage themselves" and get into trouble, he said

Teachers also must be willing to do "things you can't learn in an education program," such as going to neighborhoods and homes where students live to get a flavor of their real-world experience, Francies said.

Superintendent Donald Gill points out that Antioch is not altering the quality of education for students, but rather is making African-American male success a "focal point."

Antioch officials said another glaring set of figures is the number of black students receiving suspensions and expulsions.

African-American males accounted for 19 percent of the district's 8,815 cases of three or more unexcused absences and 24 percent of its 2,395 cases of 10 or more unexcused absences. They also racked up 39 percent of the district's suspension days and 49 percent of its expulsions.

Of the 1,795 Antioch students who received suspensions last year, about 38 percent were black males.

A task force of administrators, counselors and parents had its first meeting last week at Antioch Middle to discuss ways to boost achievement.

Many at the meeting said a portion of the students may be facing discipline for "Defiance of Authority" or other discretionary referrals. Some of those actions are rooted in a cultural bias, that is either recognized or unrecognized, Anello said.

Some immediate steps Antioch is taking include having counselors meet with black males who have been frequently suspended, administrators taking "equity walks" through school to ensure quality teaching is occurring and the setting of new site administrator goals, Anello said.

Another issue examined was the number of African-Americans in alternative education. About 34 percent of the students in alternative high school were African-American, while the comprehensive high school population is 29 percent black.

The district plans to interview African-American male students and parents in the district and reach out to the broader community. Programs and services outside of the school, and involvement from faith-based groups and churches will play a huge role, Francies said. For the first time, administrators are planning to travel to historically black colleges and universities to recruit teachers, Anello said.

Mims, a former teacher, suggested that regardless of the teacher's race, one thing that could help is if a teacher is "firm, fair and consistent" with his or her students.

Robert Strickler, head of the Antioch's teachers union, said he has not heard any reaction from members about the newly launched initiative. Teachers, however, have increasingly expressed concern about the influx of classroom walk-throughs by administrators since the beginning of the year, he said.

The district's long-term goal is to boost proficiency for students of all races.

"We have a huge task on our hands. And it can't be lip service, but hip service," Francies said. "We have to do this block by block, program by program."

Adds Anello: "It's not going to be popular with everyone."

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.

BY THE NUMBERS:
Here are how African-American males in the Antioch Unified School District compared with other students in several academic categories. (Numbers in percentages)
Category African-American males African-American males and females District
CST Language Arts 31 35 47
Proficiency
CST Mathematics 26 26 39
Proficiency
CST Language Arts 36 30 22
Below Basic
CST Mathematics 50 49 36
Below Basic
Met Graduation 71 74 86
Requirements
Sources: Antioch Unified School District, California Department of Education