Sophmore Anthony Johnson says the African-American Male Achievement program has helped him become a better student, see a future for himself and control his anger. (Barbara Grady/Oakland Local)
Sophomore Anthony Johnson says the African-American Male Achievement program is helping improve his life. (Barbara Grady/Oakland Local)

By Barbara Grady, Oakland Local

For high school sophomore Anthony Johnson, the African American Male Achievement program spurred him to become a more serious student with a career goal in mind, imagine a future for himself and be less prone to anger, he says. For Enoch Hankins, it meant becoming a B+ student instead of a C+ student. For Lionel White it provided mentors and friends he could talk with about the many issues of growing up.

For 2,500 of Oakland’s African-American boys, the African American Male Achievement Initiative in public schools has meant they are less likely to be suspended, more likely to achieve good grades and more likely to graduate from high school. For all of them, it has meant having mentors who are successful African-American men who care about them and where they are headed.

“I always have someone who wants me to do well,” Johnson said.

This groundbreaking initiative of the Oakland Unified School District appears to be paying significant dividends.

In one year, suspensions of African-American boys dropped from 21 percent in 2012 to 14 percent last year, while some schools have eliminated suspensions altogether. The graduation rate of the district’s African-American high school boys edged up to above 50 percent in 2012 from 46 percent two years earlier. Beyond the statistics, the AAMA Initiative strives to provide a vehicle to “engage, encourage and empower” these young men, helping them believe in themselves and their futures, said Chris Chatmon, its executive director.

Delivering a “Community Report Back” on the program, Chatmon both exulted in progress and lamented that the needs are still great.

”I am humbled every day by the urgency of the need to show up,” Chatmon said to an assembly of families, teachers, administrators and students one night last week in a school auditorium.

“A mother in Oakland loses her whole family,” in three weeks, he continued, head bowed, referring to the latest tragic death of a promising African-American youth, when college-going Lamar Broussard was fatally shot just three weeks after his 13-year old brother was gunned down in an inexplicable act of senseless violence.

“I want to acknowledge all of those children who aren’t here to be celebrated,” he said.

The Oakland Unified School District launched the African-American Male Achievement Initiative in 2010, amid signs that the fates and fortunes of boys who were African-American were pretty bleak. Many were, and still are, vulnerable to street violence and gang life. Too many were dropping out of high school, often after a middle-school experience of frequent suspensions, some for simple acts of defiance. In the youngest grades, one in five were chronically absent from school.

At the time, one in five African-American boys were being suspended each year from Oakland schools, according to the Urban Strategies Council, and by the eighth grade, half of the boys were off track to graduate from high school. These outcomes led the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights to launch an investigation into bias on the use of suspensions for discipline in Oakland schools.

Recognizing the school district was failing these children and not delivering on its obligation to provide all students a good education, then-Superintendent Tony Smith launched the African American Male Achievement Initiative.

About 2,500 kids have been enrolled in manhood development classes through the AAMA Initiative and assigned mentors. About 200 teachers have received training in cultural understanding, and about 700 parents have been engaged, either through parent workshops or communications from the program.

“We help build the capacity of parents,” said parent coordinator Kim Shipp. “We run workshops on realizing the college dream,” and how parents can support their sons.

In the halls of Tilden Auditorium, where the Report Back took place, smiling and proud young men told of their academic achievements and their future plans.

“Last year I had like a 2.2 GPA . Now I have a 3.2,” said Enock Hankins of Oakland High School. “I’m headed for college.”

Giavonte Bull of Fremont High School spoke about Nelson Mandela and said, “A lot of black people helped us be the people we are today.” He has been busy researching their biographies.

Students at Montera Middle School showed off journals they create in their program. Suspensions there have fallen nearly to zero.

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