It was 2010, and Christopher Chatmon had gathered the 106 principals in the Oakland Unified School District to prepare them for the launch of a new initiative.
“Close your eyes and visualize a successful African-American male student in your school,” Mr. Chatmon said, asking the school leaders to raise their hands after they had thought of one.
Only a third of the hands went up, Mr. Chatmon recalled recently, and the rest couldn’t imagine a single student who fit the prompt.
During debriefing time, principals turned to fictional characters, like the Huxtable family from “The Cosby Show,” as references for success, rather than to their own students.
“Here we are in a majority-minority district, and our leaders didn’t see that our African-American male students could be a success,” Mr. Chatmon said. “We had to change the narrative that had normalized failure in black children.”
In his job as the director of the school system’s Office of African-American Male Achievement, Mr. Chatmon works every day to rewrite that story in the district of 47,000 students, 31 percent of whom are African-American. (Thirty-eight percent of students are Latino, 14 percent are Asian, and 12 percent are white.)
Former Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith originally appointed him to lead the initiative, which has an unusual approach: identifying and targeting the problems that affect the district’s most at-risk student group—black boys.
Districts around the country have since sought to replicate parts of the trailblazing model. And with the launch of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which has brought a national spotlight to the issue of providing academic and social-emotional supports to boys of color, Mr. Chatmon has become a frequent speaker and advocate for the approach.
Co-workers credit his energy and focus for the program’s endurance through strong headwinds, including two changes in the superintendent’s office since it first started, public criticism of the decision to focus efforts on one group of students, and the intense nature of the work.
Sense of Urgency
“In Oakland, African-American boys are the least likely to have the kinds of positive support and experience necessary to enjoy the kind of success we say we want for every kid,” said Mr. Smith, who is now the executive director of the W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation, which awards grants for educational and child-development initiatives.
In addition to a lack of social and emotional supports, African-American boys are the subject of cultural stereotypes and implicit bias that often cause influential adults to approach them from a position of fear or misunderstanding, supporters of the district initiative say. And, over time, boys internalize those messages, which often leads them to store up unrecognized or unfulfilled potential, they say.
The Office of African-American Male Achievement aims to tackle those trends through a multipronged approach.
Through the Manhood Development Program, small cohorts of African-American boys with a variety of academic-success levels meet with 18 certified black male instructors recruited from various segments of the community—including coaches, artists, college professors, and a school janitor—to discuss character development, history, and other topics in regular, credit-bearing classes.
About 2,500 boys now participate in the program, which started in high schools and is now in several middle and elementary schools. There’s a waiting list of additional students who want to join.
At “Man Up” conferences, which Mr. Chatmon held even before he started working with the district, influential African-American men volunteer their time to tell stories, perform, and spend time with African-American boys.
In the district’s central office, the initiative’s staff “cross-pollinate” across all departments, representing the needs of their students in discussions about issues as varied as discipline, curriculum, policy creation, and staffing. The initiative has eight employees on its central-office team.
And Manhood Development Program instructors meet in a professional-development community with other teachers, where they give voice to classroom issues their students struggle with throughout the school day.
“If you join my team, this is a lifestyle,” Mr. Chatmon said. “Because of the sense of urgency, it’s a 24/7, 365 sense of being.”
Shaped by Experience
Mr. Smith says he recognized that sense of urgency in Mr. Chatmon when he originally asked him to lead the project. He credits the initiative director’s energy, drive, and focus with the program’s endurance and growth.
At the program’s core is the notion that black boys should be “imbued with and expected to have dignity,” Mr. Smith said.
“Chris carries that in ways that very few people who I’ve ever met in my life do,” he said. “There’s a clarity, a willingness, an extraordinary love that he exudes.”
Mr. Chatmon, 46, and his wife, LaShawn Chatmon, have three sons, ages 17, 14, and 10, who attend Oakland schools.
Mr. Chatmon started his career as a physical education teacher. After he completed his master’s degree at Brown University, he taught “history and herstory” at a San Francisco high school.
He used his own childhood experiences to shape his approach to teaching. When he was a youngster, his teachers sometimes refused to see past his boisterous spirit, turning to harsh discipline, he said.
“For two months, my desk was in a coat closet, and when my spirit was too overbearing for the teacher, she would just close the door,” Mr. Chatmon said of his childhood in South San Francisco, then a largely working-class suburb near San Francisco International Airport. “This system worked hard to break my spirit, and it told me that not only did I not have what it takes to go to college, but that I wasn’t even going to graduate from high school.”
Mr. Chatmon attributes his successes in life to participation in after-school and summer programs, a supportive basketball coach and high school history teacher, and a mentor who later became the godfather of his three sons.
As a teacher, Mr. Chatmon helped change the culture through his interpersonal relationships. He also helped his students identify influential people of color throughout history, filling in the gaps in textbooks that mostly acknowledged black Americans in passages about slavery and Martin Luther King Jr.
After his time as a teacher, Mr. Chatmon worked in administration at YMCA Oakland, and helped it launch after-school programs in 30 schools. He had just become a principal at an alternative high school in Oakland when Mr. Smith approached him about his proposal to create an entire district department for African-American male students.
The problems Mr. Chatmon faced as a child were evident in the district, and those problems will take some time to turn around, program supporters say.
“It’s long, hard work, to be honest,” said Curtiss Sarikey, Oakland’s deputy chief of community schools and student services. In 2012, the district signed a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights following an investigation by the federal agency to address claims that the school system disciplined black students more harshly than white ones.
In the 2009-10 school year, 18 percent of black boys were suspended at least once, compared with 8 percent of students districtwide and 3 percent of white male students, a local task force assembled to explore outcomes for black boys found.
Here we are in a majority-minority district, and our leaders didn’t see that our African-American male students could be a success. We had to change the narrative that had normalized failure in black children.
Compared with a white child born in the eastern part of the city, a black child born on the west side was seven times more likely to be born into poverty, four times less likely to be reading on grade level by 4th grade, and nearly six times more likely to drop out of school, the task force found.
The initiative Mr. Chatmon leads regularly sets and evaluates goals for areas like academic achievement, discipline, and social issues that affect African-American males.
Since the program started, suspensions and absences have fallen for its participants. And, in a recent survey, 64 percent of participating students reported that their Manhood Development Program class is “like a family to them.”
On average, participants in the Manhood Development Program have higher grade point averages than their black male peers who don’t participate.
“OUSD is raising the bar for the nation and represents a model for institutionalizing efficacy and disrupting barriers to achievement,” Vajra Watson, the director of research and policy for equity at the University of California, Davis, wrote in a January report on the program.
Mr. Chatmon, who refers to his students as “kings” and to himself as “Brother Chris,” has spoken at conferences, professional-development seminars, and even White House events as the profile of the district’s work has grown.
Now, when he’s invited to conferences, he asks if he can bring a group of boys along to speak for themselves.
“One thing Chris is really stellar at is being a spokesperson for the work,” Mr. Sarikey said. “Outside of just being completely driven around the development of young black boys, his ability to inspire people, really get people motivated around the issues at hand, and galvanize the community around the issues is really remarkable. It’s very real for him in terms of the urgency of what needs to happen.”
There’s been criticism around the country and in Oakland of efforts that focus on such a specific population and don’t include girls or other groups that may be at risk.
But Mr. Chatmon insists that addressing the problems of the students who struggle most will have ripple effects that help everybody. He plans to eventually expand the African-American Male Achievement office to an office of race, equity, and healing that addresses the needs of other students, including Latino and Native American children.
“Eventually,” he said, “I want to work myself out of a job.”