Kevin Jennings begins his cultural identity class 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. Students identify the negative cultural stereotypes and expectations for black men and boys that wreak havoc on one’s self-image.
Mr. Jennings’s class at the Montera Middle School in Oakland, Calif., is part of an ambitious initiative by the Oakland Unified School District to rewrite the destructive 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.
“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 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 planted — 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.
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!”