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Ahmari Harris, 13, participates in a discussion during a manhood deevelopment class at Montera Middle School in Oakland on Wednesday Sept. 25, 2013, a class designed specifically for African American male students. (Doug Oakley/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- Progress in improving the abysmal academic outcomes of Oakland's black males 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.

Private funding for the school district's office of African American Male Achievement will go from $400,000 a year to $600,000 a year for the next three years. And in a related development, the school board recently approved a one-time infusion of $700,000 to reduce the disproportionate numbers of 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 new money will go toward hiring more teachers who work directly with black male students in manhood development classes, the cornerstone of the African American Male Achievement office, and to expand restorative justice programs at the 38 schools as an alternative to suspensions.

In the three years since Chris Chatmon was named to head the office, the fate of young black men has shown a small glimmer of hope.

For example, the number of African-American males graduating from Oakland high schools went from 45 percent to 50 percent, the dropout rate from 36 percent to 30 percent, chronic absenteeism 23 percent to 18 percent and suspensions 18 percent to 11 percent.


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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 decide 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."

Institutional bias

Oakland school officials say the creation of an office specifically for one group that struggles, which they say is partly due to institutional bias in the school district, is in itself revolutionary.

"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 black boys. "Just three years is not going to change structural racism that has existed for hundreds of years. We have got to do some things really different to push up against this system."

School district spokesman Troy Flint said while people outside the Bay Area may not agree with Hodge's sentiments, many people in Oakland are right with her.

"I certainly think her viewpoints echo the thoughts of many in Oakland," Flint said. "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?' 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."

Since the office opened in 2010, Chatmon has staked its success almost solely on the manhood development classes that try to teach character development by learning responsibility and respect. The classes also serve as a place where African-American boys can get assistance in other classes, whether it be through sorting out conflicts with their teachers or simply extra help with homework.

Kevin Jennings, who teaches manhood development in sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Montera Middle School, said in addition to teaching black history, he focuses on academic achievement.

"We try to establish a relationship with our students," Jennings said. "I had a student who came to me and said he needed help with his math homework, so we opened up his book, and he hadn't even started it. I wasn't quite sure how to do it myself, so I went to the math teacher, had him teach it to me, then I showed my student how to do it."

Will it work?

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, provide new training for school security guards and school staff with the focus on suspending fewer black males, and hire three new employees to help schools expand restorative justice programs.

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. He 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."

Chatmon said he feels like the program has come a long way since he started it, goals or no 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 at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.