The San Francisco Chronicle is in the midst of a three-part series, the last of which will run this Sunday, built around a terribly sobering statistic about what it's like to grow up a black male across the bay in Oakland:
Over the past decade, the number of African American men killed on the streets of Oakland nearly matched the number who graduated from its high schools ready to attend a state university.
To be more specific, in the past 10 years, 787 black men and boys in the city have been a victim of a homicide (out of 1,197 total Oakland homicides in that time). During the same stretch, only 802 young black men graduated from high school meeting the requirements to attend a California State University or University of California school.
Those odds are astounding, a tragedy that implicates nearly everyone involved: the boys who've made bad decisions, their families, the school system, the community, "this society," as one school official puts it, which "is conditioned to be afraid of young black men." (Spoiler alert if you get to the reader comments: The farther out in this ecosystem you suggest fault, the more likely some people are to make vague cries of "racism!").
The series, from writer Jill Tucker and photographer Lacy Atkins, looks at one particularly novel program that the Oakland school district has been testing to try to reverse these trends. In 2010, officials created an "African American Male Achievement Office," designed to focus on the specific needs of that population, both in the classroom and out of it. The effort includes classes on "manhood development," mentoring, and inspirational robo-calls to family homes.
The idea is a totally different take on what most research tells us about how to boost the educational prospects of low-income, minority students. Student outcomes are intimately tied to who else is sitting in the classroom: All else equal, a low-income black child is more likely to succeed in a setting where many of his classmates are middle-class. That option obviously isn't available here, and so Oakland is trying the opposite, concentrating the most at-risk students in a room (or even a charter school) for pointed conversations that might not take place in any other context.
Here is one such class that Tucker sits in on:
The conversation continued to flow, the beanbag flying until it landed on a new topic: absent fathers.
"You want to come in and out of my life like I'm a choice?" said one student about his own dad.
"How many feel that way?" Robinson asked.
Several hands went up.
"You start building these walls," Robinson continued. "If you mess up, it's like, 'You're just like your dad.' How many hear that?"
All hands were raised. The room went silent.
Some early data suggests that the boys in this program are receiving fewer suspensions and better grades than boys in a control group. It will probably take years to determine if this tactic is really effective in the face of so many obstacles that a single mentor, or even a whole school district, can't control. In the meantime, the series is worth a read for its thoughtful look into a community intimately experiencing violence we more often hear about in the abstract.
Top image: Flickr user uvw916a.