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A School District Invests in Male Student Success

By Jay Sherwin

Occasionally, we are lucky enough to meet colleagues or participate in programs that help us to look at familiar problems with new perspective and new insights. I recently had the opportunity to re-examine an issue I’ve considered for many years: How can we help young men of color to succeed in school and thrive in the world beyond school?

As an education funder and philanthropy consultant, I’ve spent the last decade confronting this problem. The statistics are grim and familiar. On a variety of standardized tests, African-American, Latino and Native American males achieve at significantly lower levels than their white and Asian-American peers. Fewer than half of black males graduate from high school on time.

I just attended an urban education study tour sponsored by Grantmakers for Education (GFE), a national association that promotes learning, networking and reflective practice for education funders. These tours allow funders to visit school districts that are facing tremendous challenges and responding with energy and creativity.

Our agenda included a visit to Oakland’s Edna Brewer Middle School, where we met Chris Chatmon, Director of the Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African-American Male Achievement, and his colleague, Jahi, who leads an after-school manhood development program.

I was inspired by Chris’s commitment to helping young men of color overcome the barriers that inhibit their social development and academic achievement. I was impressed with Jahi’s use of simple homemade drums to teach problem solving, teamwork, pride and discipline. And I was taken with the middle school students who described their own goals with maturity and poise.

Much of what I saw at Edna Brewer was familiar—I’ve met many other inspiring teachers and impressive students. Here’s what was different: In Oakland, the district leadership, beginning with Superintendent Tony Smith, has made the achievement of young men of color a tangible, explicit, measurable goal for the school district. Tony told us that one of his goals is to reduce the proportion of young men of color from Oakland who end up in the adult corrections system by 50 percent in the next decade. He sees efforts to promote manhood, responsibility and good judgment as essential components of the school district’s mission. He’s made it an imperative for the Oakland schools.

Helping young men of color to achieve their full potential is difficult work. It will take more than a few talented educators reaching more than a lucky few students in one program or one school. In Oakland, I saw the vision, commitment and district-level leadership that real change requires.