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Culturally Supportive Program for Black Boys Boosts On-Time Graduation Rates

In 2010, the school district in Oakland, Calif., rolled out a program designed to wrap black male students in a culturally rich and supportive environment—all with the goal of boosting their academic success and life outcomes. 

A new study of the impact of Oakland's African American Male Achievement Program shows that by one measure, the efforts are paying off.

The four-year graduation rate for black males who had access to the program in their freshman and sophomore years increased by about 3 percentage points. Because various features of the initiative were rolled out over time, researchers at Stanford University were able to compare the impact on students who were in the program with similar black male students who were in schools that weren't yet participating. 

The study also notes that Oakland, which has developed a number of educational equity programs, saw graduation rates among black male students increase from 46 percent to 69 percent between 2010 and 2018, which was a faster rate of improvement than the districtwide graduation rate among all students. Access to the African American male achievement supports contributed substantially to those gains, the paper said. The study also noted a smaller, though still statistically significant, positive impact on the on-time graduation rate of black girls.

The 36,000-student Oakland district is about 42 percent Latino, 24 percent black, 13 percent Asian, and 12 percent white. Nearly 75 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. 

'Targeted Universalism'

The design features of the African-American male initiative are an example of "targeted universalism," or using goals targeted at specific populations (in this case, black male students) to achieve a universal goal‐academic success. 

"We're steeped in this American myth of the melting pot and treating people in a universal way," said Thomas Dee, the study's lead author and a professor of education at Stanford University. Dee is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. "Is that really the right way to achieve the universal goals that we have for people?"

Dee's working paper, published Oct. 21 on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research and on the website of Stanford's Center for Education Policy Analysis, adds to the extensive literature tracking the impact of Oakland's African American Male Achievement initiative and its Manhood Development Program, in particular. 

In the Manhood Development Program, young men are enrolled during the school day in a daily class taught by black male instructors. The class focuses on peer supports, social-emotional learning, and community projects. 

The impact of the program on the lives of participants and teachers was captured in "We Dare Say Love," a book co-edited by Na'ilah Suad Nasir, the president of the Spencer Foundation; Jarvis Givens, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Christopher P. Chatmon, the deputy equity director for Oakland schools, who started the initiative.

"One of the things we did really early on is interview 40 or 50 African-American male students across several of the school sites, after the first year of the program," Nasir said. In those interviews, students talked about the classes as spaces that saw them as "fully human," which wasn't the experience they felt they were having in school before then,.

"They were feeling like they were always on the edge of being blamed for things that weren't their fault. It was a breath of fresh air for them, where they could be kids and they didn't carry the burden of being treated like men. Their best intentions were assumed," Nasir said. 

Dee said that his analysis of Oakland's work is the first study of the impact of the My Brother's Keeper Initiative. My Brother's Keeper, introduced in 2014 during the Obama administration and continuing now as part as the Obama Foundation, partnered with Oakland to support its work. Nearly 250 communities in all 50 states have received over $600 million in grants and in-kind support, as well as $1 billion in low-interest financing.

"Everything suggests to me that Chris Chatmon has established a deeply compelling proof point here, and a positive one," Dee said. "That, to me, is the beginning of a conversation and not the end of one." Questions that remain is how other districts might be able to support such a program, as well as train up a similarly culturally supportive workforce. 

But that part is key, said Nasir, drawing on what she learned talking with the young men involved in the program. "Districts have to recognize and honestly face how tough just daily life in schools is for black male students," she said. "You can't short cut the social and emotional part of this work." 

Below: Christopher Chatmon, Oakland's deputy equity director, talks about his work in the district.

Related links:

Educator Leads Campaign to Transform the Lives of Black Boys 

Oakland, Calif. District Launches Effort to Support Black Girls

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