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Oakland Schools Work to Transform Experience for African-American Boys

September 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Oakland, Calif., some programs are working to better help African-American boys graduate from high school and improve their social and academic outcomes. Special correspondent Joshua Johnson of KQED reports on the push to change the way these students think about school by offering them more support.

GWEN IFILL: It’s a new school year in most parts of the country, a good time to explore the important ideas being discussed and debated in education.

We start our series with a report from Oakland, Calif., on a different approach to the dropout problem, where young black men are more likely to miss school, get suspended, or end up in jail than other students, statistics that have alarmed school officials.

Our story from special correspondent Joshua Johnson was produced by our colleagues at KQED in partnership with The San Francisco Chronicle. It’s part of the American Graduate Project, a public media initiative about the dropout crisis.

MAN: Good morning, sir. How you doing?

MAN: Good.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Sizwe Abakah teaches the manhood development class at Oakland’s Skyline High School.

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MAN: Glad you could be here with us, brother.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: He and about a dozen African-American male teachers are focused on making sure that black boys graduate high school.

SIZWE ABAKAH, Skyline High: We’re trying to make transformations. A lot of our brothers are failing disproportionately. Like, if we look at the statistics in Oakland, we’re the highest in everything we don’t need to be in.

JUNIOUS WILLIAMS, Urban Strategies Council: You will see higher rates of dropout, lower rates of graduation, higher rates of chronic absence, higher rates of suspension.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Junious Williams is CEO of the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland-based nonprofit working to eliminate persistent poverty.

In 2010, the council partnered with the Oakland School District to develop solutions for improving academic and social outcomes for black boys. The result was the Office of African-American Male Achievement.

Chris Chatmon is the executive director.

CHRIS CHATMON, Oakland Office of African-American Male Achievement: One of the strategies with our manhood development classes and just getting eye level with the youth is, how do we put kind of the swag back in education, in learning?

JOSHUA JOHNSON: One challenge to restoring that swag, that swaggering sense of cool, was getting boys motivated to even show up to school.

CHRIS CHATMON: What we found was that if kids weren’t excited about being in school, and they were engaged and being encouraged, actually, then they would get turned on to the streets.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Skyline is one of eight high schools and three middle schools in Oakland that offer the manhood development class. Students come from varying academic, economic, and family backgrounds.

Define manhood for me. In the context of this program, what does it mean to be a man?

SIZWE ABAKAH: I just want brothers to embrace all aspects of manhood, not just so much the strength, but the compassion, the love, aspects of fatherhood, aspects of husbandhood, aspects of brotherhood.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Every day, Abakah, also known as Brother Sizwe, leads the boys in exercise. It focuses their minds so that they can become better students.

SIZWE ABAKAH: And my major concern is a lot of our brothers don’t know how to receive information. They don’t know how to take notes. They don’t know how to just sit down, some of them. A lot of our brothers need fathers, just period. I don’t know what other way I could put it.

STUDENT: In elementary school, a lot of the teachers used to tell me I will never accomplish anything. And I was actually one of the smartest kids in my class.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Abakah says sometimes the class feels more like therapy.

SIZWE ABAKAH: We might have to deal with a brother that lost a cousin, or a brother that might be having a baby next week.


JOSHUA JOHNSON: Students built altars to honor fallen classmates and other victims of gun violence, stark reminders of the trauma many carry into the classroom.

STUDENT: I grew up on 94th. That was a bad area. A lot of killings happened.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Wesley Brownlee, a 15-year-old freshman, is a student in the manhood class. When he graduated from middle school, he had a 3.5 GPA. Once he started high school, it began to drop.

STUDENT: I have seen myself hanging out with kind of the wrong friends and all that, like into bad stuff.

MAN: Brother Wes, how are them grades?

STUDENT: They’re looking good so far. But I just got to turn in a big history assignment. And I’m kind of late on it already.

MAN: Whatever support you need, between myself, the youth center, you know, tutoring on campus, it’s time.

STUDENT: Before, all I was worried about was just sports, and now Brother Sizwe, he made us dig deeper into school. If we don’t have a good education, we might not get to the school we want, or we might not have the job that we want when we get older.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: A few miles away from Skyline, a charter school is trying a more comprehensive approach. It’s targeting kids starting in kindergarten, and all of the nearly 75 students enrolled are African-American boys.

MARK ALEXANDER, 100 Black Men of the Bay Area Community School: A lot of boys that come to this school have failed in other schools. They have been kicked out, expelled. And we are not quick to do that.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Dr. Mark Alexander, a retired epidemiologist, is board chairman of the 100 Black Men of the Bay Area Community School, which opened in 2012. The focus is on an educational mix of science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. The school currently serves elementary students, but the goal is to expand coverage through 12th grade.

MARK ALEXANDER: And I grew up foster homes. I grew up in very, very tough situations. I used to fight a lot. I used to get suspended. And so I see a lot of myself in these boys. And I see the genius in a lot of these kids.

So what is that doing?

I know that it only takes a few people to just give someone the encouragement that they need to really thrive.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Kids at the school start every morning with breakfast, then line up to repeat their morning affirmations, also known as the scholar holler.

MAN: Who are we?

STUDENTS: We are leaders!


MAN: Who is ready to learn?


JOSHUA JOHNSON: The school’s robust offerings include a homework club, an aeronautics class, as well as mentoring in medicine and science.

The goal is to make sure that all the needs of African-American boys are met.

If you had not received the kind of support as a boy that you are providing to these African-American boys at this school, where would you be today?

MARK ALEXANDER: I would be in San Quentin or dead.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: You seem very sure of that?

MARK ALEXANDER: Absolutely. I had a lot of people that refused to let me fail, who said, you have got to do this. You have got to do this. There are no other options for you. And we have got to have — we have that attitude towards our children today.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Dr. Alexander says the situation is more dire than people may think. It’s not just an African-American issue or even an Oakland issue. It’s an economic issue that impacts everyone in California, a state where minorities now make up the majority.

JUNIOUS WILLIAMS: When we fail black boys, Latino boys, whomever it is, there is a cost attached to that, incarceration, social services, added police protection, insurance rate. The litany goes on and on and on, and it is a huge price tag. When you invest up front and you make those boys successful, you turn that, you invert that.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: The Office of African-American Male Achievement is seeing some early signs of progress. Some of the participating schools are reporting fewer discipline problems, better grades, and improved attendance. But reversing the old trends remains daunting.

For Chris Chatmon, success begins by acknowledging achievements every step of the way. This year, Chatmon’s office co-sponsored an annual honor roll event celebrating African-American boys and girls from eighth to 12th grades who maintained a 3.0 grade-point average. One of the Skyline manhood development students, 15-year-old Javon Maybon, performed a spoken word piece at the event.

JAVON MAYBON, Skyline:I’m 11 years old in the sixth grade, and I can’t read. The class is so full that the teachers didn’t notice me, but I can’t read.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: Javon didn’t have the GPA needed to win an award, but hopes to next year.

JAVON MAYBON: But on this biggest game of the school year, I was coming down the lane getting ready to do my thing, when number 13 crashed into me. And at the same time that I heard my knee snap, I see my family’s dreams shattered. So now I’m asking you all, what are my options? I can’t read.



JOSHUA JOHNSON: His performance was both a painful reminder of what black boys are up against and a moving testament to their potential.

GWEN IFILL: The American Graduate Project is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.