OAKLAND -- Just 13 percent of the children in Alameda County are African-American, according to U.S. census estimates, but you wouldn't know it by walking through Alameda County's juvenile hall.

Two of every three youths booked into the facility in August and September were African-American. Half of the new detainees were black boys.

The disproportionate number of young black males in the nation's criminal justice system is well documented. But juvenile crime is often treated as a problem outside a school district's jurisdiction -- a matter for the courts to manage.

Not in Oakland.

This fall, in his second year as superintendent of Oakland's public schools, Tony Smith created a privately funded Cabinet-level office to improve the lives of black male students, who make up about 17 percent of the district's enrollment.

The goal of the African-American male student achievement initiative, Smith said, is "to interrupt the institutional oppression and racism that is in effect in the city of Oakland."

Oakland's black male achievement office has four years to cut in half the incarceration rate of African-American boys, increase their average attendance by 75 percent, double their high school graduation rate, eliminate the racial disparity in school suspensions, and close the fourth-grade literacy gap.

To lead the effort, Smith appointed Chris Chatmon, education chairman for 100 Black Men of the Bay Area. Chatmon, 42, has spent years working with Bay Area youths in various capacities -- teacher, alternative school principal, and through the Oakland YMCA. His sons attend Crocker Highlands Elementary, a high-performing Oakland public school where Smith sends his daughters.

The night before Chatmon's appointment came a tragic reminder of what was at stake. The city lost another student, another black teen, to gun violence: 17-year-old Raymen Justice.

Public reaction

Many have praised Smith, who is white, for publicly acknowledging such a politically thorny issue, and for framing it as a public health crisis and a product of institutional racism. But some say they hope the needs of other students, including African-American girls, English learners and Latinos, won't be ignored as a result.

Latino students now make up the largest ethnic group in the Oakland school district. They have made strong test score gains in recent years, but remain below the district average in basic reading and math skills. The Latino Men and Boys Project, a report released in September by the Oakland Unity Council, said some "worry that gangs are becoming increasingly central to Latino male identity in Oakland."

Kwame Fungala, 20, spoke at a recent town hall meeting about black males during a national tour organized by a group of East Coast documentary filmmakers. Fungala, who is black, was once a struggling Oakland student himself. He graduated from Dewey Academy, a continuation school next to the district administration building, he said, after playing the "cool thug in school." After the panel discussion, Fungala said he knew many youths -- girls and boys -- who weren't realizing their abilities. It doesn't seem right, he said, for the initiative to focus only on black males.

"I think it should be for all the young people," he said.

But Randall Bustamante, a teacher at Fremont Federation's Mandela High School who participated in the Latino Men and Boys Project, said he understands. African-American boys are hurting the most, Bustamante said. If that reality isn't publicly acknowledged, and if schools aren't held accountable for helping them succeed, he asked, when will the system change?

Old issue, new focus

Over the years, school districts around the nation -- including Oakland -- have launched initiatives to address the dropout rates, college preparation, grades and test scores of black students. But recent reports from the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Council of the Great City Schools have brought a renewed sense of urgency to the issue, and, like Smith, have focused on the dismal outcomes of African-American boys.

Black boys who are not poor do no better on national reading and math tests than poor white males, according to the council's new report, "A Call for Change." The Schott report found that white boys are twice as likely to be placed in gifted-and-talented courses, while black boys are twice as likely to be classified as mentally disabled.

To change such patterns in Oakland, Smith has directed district staff members to check the transcripts of all male African-American ninth-graders to see if they're on track to graduate with state university requirements. Chatmon's office will conduct audits of the district's special education department, its police force, its new teacher support program and other departments to look for policies that might negatively affect black male students.

Chatmon said a key part of the plan will be to learn from schools whose African-American students have more often been successful, such as Peralta Elementary School in North Oakland.

Ron Walker, of the Massachusetts-based advocacy group Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, said that for African-American boys, he hasn't seen anything quite as bold or broad in scope as the Oakland initiative.

"I think this is a vanguard move, and I think other places will be watching with a great deal of interest," Walker said.

This isn't the first time the Oakland school district has promised to confront racial inequities. In 1993, Oscar Wright -- a board meeting regular whom Chatmon calls "Oakland's Martin Luther King" -- filed a federal lawsuit with the Office for Civil Rights. The suit demanded the district provide its black students with the same access to college preparatory and advanced curriculum as other students.

In 1998, the Oakland school board adopted a resolution to address those concerns. A decade after it was passed, however, the statistics were as bleak as ever. In fall 2004, 956 black boys were enrolled in the ninth grade. Four years later, 377 graduated. Of those, 89 -- fewer than 1 in 10 -- were eligible to attend a state university.

That could soon change. Starting next fall, all Oakland ninth-grade students will enroll in a course sequence that more closely matches state university requirements, according to a plan adopted last year.

Chatmon will surely be monitoring that policy shift, and others. He said the superintendent and school board have given him license to finally "penetrate the system." But what will that mean? How will a district initiative reshape the reality of black students in Oakland?

Getting started

As a one-man department, Chatmon has been flooded with calls: parents asking for mentors for their sons, teachers seeking support and advice, principals requesting classroom observations. He has asked for a list of schools with the highest and lowest attendance and suspension rates of black males; the percentage of black boys enrolled in advanced placement courses at each school; and the number who are participating in sports and other programs.

On the night of his appointment, school board members assured him he wouldn't be taking on the monumental task alone.

"Someone came up to me and said, 'So how's that czar of African-American males thing going to work out for you all?'" Jumoke Hinton Hodge, a school board member, said to Chatmon. "I do not think we're going to put that level of pressure on this brother or his family."

Chatmon said he sees himself as a conductor, not a czar. But first, he said, he needs an orchestra: people to synthesize key books and reports, to help him recruit volunteers, to give him history lessons, and to get the word out about upcoming events.

Michael Johnson, a deacon at East Oakland's Allen Temple Baptist Church, works with people -- often, African-American men -- who are coming out of prison and looking for work. He said he sees the hopelessness, the lack of education, every day. He considers violence to be "the articulation of the inarticulate" and says public education in the United States is in need of repair.

But Johnson said he will wait to see if an initiative set in motion by a school district administrator will lead to concrete improvements. "We get a whole lot of pie in the sky, which we're used to, but we don't see it come to fruition," he said.

Chatmon is more optimistic. "This is history," he said. "This is an amazing opportunity for all of us. The time is now."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBABuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.