The Village: Courses in Manhood for African-American Boys
Kevin Jennings begins his class on cultural identity for African-American boys with a daily affirmation: “I am focused. I am ready to learn. Let’s turn up!”
The subject is how society sees black men, and the lens is the Matrix, a metaphor borrowed from the sci-fi film. Students identify the negative cultural stereotypes and expectations for black men and boys — what the Matrix wants you to think — that wreak havoc on a youngster’s self-image.
“The Matrix is there to mess you up,” Rahsaan Smith, a live wire of a 13-year-old, pipes in. “It’s a very, very dark world, but you can’t be afraid to be a source of light.”
Mr. Jennings’s class, at the Montera Middle School in Oakland, Calif., is part of a novel and ambitious initiative by the Oakland Unified School District to rewrite the pernicious script of racial inequality, underachievement and lack of opportunity for African-American boys.
The full-credit elective, “Mastering Our Cultural Identity: African American Male Image” (commonly referred to as the Manhood Development Program), is now in the daily curriculum at 20 schools throughout the district, tailored to age appropriateness for third to 12th graders.
While lower grades focus on the stories, legacies and images of black people, high school students take a deep dive into African-American history and culture, from ancient civilizations to the civil rights movement to contemporary media. All classes are taught by black male instructors whose own experiences and perspectives provide a multidimensional understanding of the students they mentor (in Oakland, as elsewhere, more than half the teachers are white and most are women).
Manhood Development is the flagship program of the Office of African American Male Achievement, the country’s first department within a public school district that specifically addresses the needs of its most vulnerable children: black boys, who have stubbornly remained at the bottom of nearly every academic indicator, including high school graduation rates in most states, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
Begun unofficially five years ago, the office kicked into high gear in 2012. That is when the district signed an agreement with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to improve outcomes following an investigation into grossly disproportionate suspension rates of black males — 42 percent annually, though they made up only 17 percent of the school population. A majority were for “willful defiance,” nonviolent infractions like texting in class or using profanity with a teacher.
“When black children do what children do, the system reacts more harshly,” said Christopher P. Chatmon, the executive director of the Office of African American Male Achievement and its turbo-powered guiding force. “The No. 1 strategy to reduce discipline issues is engaged instruction.” In Manhood Development, he added, “we’re talking about how to elevate their game academically through the lens of brotherhood.”
In a city with a legacy of black political activism — where the unarmed Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a police officer in 2009 at the Fruitvale BART station and #blacklivesmatter was germinated — the initiative begins with the premise that the words “black male” and “achievement” go together and that a college degree can be a part of their future. The philosophy might be encapsulated in a greeting scribbled on a whiteboard at Oakland High School: “Welcome Kings!” — the somewhat grandiose title a shorthand for holding oneself to a high standard and being responsible for others.
Think of it as #blackmindsmatter.
The mission of the Office of African American Male Achievement is to support all of Oakland’s black male students, which it strives to do through a variety of initiatives, including peer mentoring, a student leadership council and conferences that bring together role models and students — a sort of uber school assembly that has the cacophonous energy of a revivalist meeting.
In addition, two Afrocentric core courses have just been introduced — in English language arts and history — that meet the strict prerequisites for the University of California. And a career academy is in the works at Oakland High called the Khepera Pathway, which will steep African-American male students in entrepreneurship, social innovation and civic engagement, with help from a $750,000 grant from Google.
While the programs are too young to be assessed, in the last two years chronic absenteeism and suspensions have dropped for black males in the district (come July, defiance will no longer be a suspension infraction). Last year, more than half the 52 students who started Manhood Development classes as freshmen — the first graduating class — headed off to college with scholarships from the local nonprofit East Bay College Fund.
Perhaps most encouraging is the African American Male Achievement’s honor roll for black students, male and female, with grade-point averages of 3.0 or above — an accomplishment celebrated every year at a raucous event attended by thousands at a gospel church. The percentage of young men on the roll has risen from 16 percent to 25 percent over the past three years.
Each school day, Rahsaan Smith travels the city’s vast economic, social and psychic divide, leaving the flatlands of East Oakland, synonymous with violence, for a middle school perched on a steep hill fragrant with eucalyptus. He is one of the few boys in Mr. Jennings’s class with both a dad and a mom at home.
Compared to a white child born in the Oakland Hills, a black child born in East Oakland is 21 times as likely to be poor and a third as likely to be reading at grade level in the fourth grade, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department.
In a survey of 250 boys in Manhood Development classes, Vajra Watson, director of research and policy for equity at the University of California, Davis, found that half of middle school students had seen someone shot; by 10th grade, two-thirds had.
More than anything, it is the deep relationships between instructors and students, many of whom grow up with no male figure at home, that hold the key to ending the soul-numbing disenfranchisement that so many young men experience at school. Teachers will often stop by to ask Manhood Development instructors for insights about particular students.
“You have to have your hand on their pulse,” said Earnest Jenkins III, who teaches the class at Oakland High, one of the city’s most diverse schools.
Mr. Jenkins has seen it all — “crack epidemic grandbabies,” homeless students, the student who sells snacks at school as the family’s only breadwinner, “the parent who tells her son to go out and sell this weed to pay the bills.” And worst of all, “the trauma that nobody cares.”
“You have to erase eight or nine years of low or no expectations,” Mr. Jenkins said. “You have to make them un-believe what they’ve been taught to believe.”
Shawn A. Ginwright, a professor of education in the Africana studies department at San Francisco State University, noted that in cities like Oakland, “what shows up in the classroom is often the disinvestment outside of it.” Profound, meaningful relationships with teachers “help students develop a sense of agency,” he said. “Young people are not going to school just to accumulate skill sets but also to broaden the vision for their lives.”
That vision was nonexistent when Mr. Chatmon was in elementary school in South San Francisco in the early 1970s. The teachers “didn’t know what to do with my spirited energy,” he recalled. In third grade, he was deemed so disruptive that the teacher moved his desk into the coat closet for two months, frequently shutting the door. In high school, he was told he “didn’t have what it takes to get into college” (he attended San Francisco State) and probably wouldn’t graduate (he would go on to earn a master’s degree in education from Brown).
He vowed that, one day, he would be the best teacher ever to boys like himself rather than being “undercut, demeaned and made to feel not smart.”
Mr. Chatmon’s background includes a stint as the principal of an alternative high school for formerly incarcerated and truant youth. The father of three sons, he radiates a sense of urgency beneath his signature Kangol caps. “Our role is not to say, ‘I caught you,’” he said. “It’s to ask, ‘What is our moral imperative and how does it show up in the education of our children?’”
Lamar Hancock, an instructor at Oakland Technical, the city’s highest-ranking public high school, tries to retrieve the spark hidden within recalcitrant young men. “I see students with passion burning in their brains whose parents are not academic,” he said. “They’re looking for some kind of influence.”
He stands outside the door of Room 141, shaking hands with each student as he enters class — a soft handshake or a lack of eye contact is a tip-off to something awry.
“Some teachers don’t take you seriously when you raise your hand,” said Morris Jackson, a junior who is active in the Black Student Union and tutors at a local elementary school. “They think you’re just another ghetto black.” Not so in Mr. Hancock’s class. “What drew me was the unity of African-American men,” Morris said. “When we disagree, we disagree respectfully. Coming to this class makes you want to stay and do better.”
A recent class discussion ricocheted from Marcus Garvey to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Brown and X-Men comics and a vocabulary lesson set to a jazz standard by Wayne Shorter. On “business excellence Thursdays,” students dress the part.
Manhood Development students are typically an academic mix, including high achievers and those needing extra help. Some sign up for a class year after year; some move on and then come back.
Rickey and his siblings lived on their own, and when their mother died at age 57, Rickey called Mr. Hancock, who helped him make up nearly a year of school. He now has a 3.6 G.P.A. and recently went on an airplane for the first time to visit colleges. So far, he has gotten into six Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which reviewed his transcripts at a college fair and rendered an on-site decision. “My goal for Rickey was to hear the words ‘I got accepted,’ ” Mr. Hancock said.
Manhood Development strives to create a scaffold of resilience with a flotilla of black male professionals and college advisers who mentor high school students. It also organizes field trips to local colleges and universities.
Once a week, fellows with the U.C. Berkeley Destination College Advising Corps advise the classes. A recent session for Mr. Hancock’s juniors and seniors took creative license with “Jeopardy!”
One category: “Myths About Blacks in Education.”
For $100: “There are more black men where than in prison?” Answer: College.
Work to elevate young African-American males is being done not just in Oakland but also in cities around the country. The Minneapolis Public Schools recently established its own Office of Black Male Student Achievement with a curriculum developed with the University of Minnesota. Last year, New York City, the nation’s largest public school system, announced plans to hire 1,000 black, Latino and Asian male teachers (black men make up just 2 percent of the nation’s teaching force).
Some of the most heralded models are all-boys schools. Among them: Urban Prep Academies, a Chicago charter school with an all-black student body that famously boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate. The school day on its three campuses runs from 8:30 to 4:30, not counting time for required extracurriculars, and students wear jackets and ties. (It’s not for everyone: The school loses about a third of enrollees.)
The District of Columbia Public Schools is working with Urban Prep’s founder and C.E.O., Tim King, to develop a similar all-boys school as part of its $20 million Empowering Males of Color initiative. As in Oakland, the “secret sauce” is high expectations and paying close attention, Mr. King said.
While admiring these efforts, some educators see potential pitfalls. “They’ve done a lot to boost the self-esteem of these kids,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. But he added: “What you don’t want is for the other teachers to say, ‘I don’t have to worry about these students because the other instructor is taking care of it.’” Dr. Noguera would like to see a rigorous evaluation of the program. Understanding components that seem to be working would be beneficial to other districts grappling with equity issues, he said.
Being embedded in a district also means students may still encounter what some researchers call “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
“There has to be a focus on the cultural competence of white female teachers who work with black boys,” said Shaun R. Harper, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s not enough focus on, dare I say, remediating schoolteachers to effectively teach diverse students.”
To Shawn Dove, head of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a national leadership network, the new programs are a result of America’s unfinished business, centuries old. “When you start to shift the culture, climate and language of an entire school district, you begin seeing changes,” he said. “But it takes time. It’s not Jack-in-the-beanstalk work.”
At Montera Middle School, Mr. Jennings encourages his students to set goals for themselves, whether it’s straight A’s or simply handing in their assignments on time. He frequently tells his students that “success is addicting” and enjoins them: “Speak loud and proud!”
He writes their names on the board when they do something positive, instead of the other way around. He watches his young charges change “not just academically, but their character — what they believe about themselves and what they want people to know about them.”
Anthony Johnson, an Oakland Tech senior, recently won the Confidence Award at a national event for black men in Louisville, Ky. His goal is to be a pediatric nurse.
“This is proof that what they teach us is not a myth,” he said. “We are the ones who are going to set the bar.”