A separate but equal school for black boys
Story by Jill Tucker and photos by Lacy Atkins
Alonzo Swift has pretty much settled on Yale University.
The Oakland boy knows he needs to pass fifth grade first and that it’s cold in Connecticut, but he has heard Yale “is a good college” and he’s sure his mom would send him there with plenty of hot chocolate, marshmallows and a warm coat.
“It’s hard to get in there, so you have to be focused,” the 9-year-old said.
Where Alonzo will go to college might still be up in the air, but if he’ll go is not.
At the 100 Black Men of the Bay Area Community School, every student, including Alonzo, is black, male and on the road to college.
If the public charter school is successful, it will – within a decade – significantly boost the number of African American boys graduating from high school in Oakland and heading to a four-year university.
Among a handful of public schools across the country designed to specifically serve black boys, the race-based charter school is one of the more extreme strategies in a wide-ranging national response to the vexing failure of black boys in schools and across society.
The premise wassimple: Give boys African American male role models. Give them mentors, patient teachers and more time in the classroom to excel in science, math, technology and art. Make sure they get breakfast, lunch and snacks. Give them discipline, rituals, and a curriculum that acknowledges the role of African Americans in history and society.
Take in the black boys no one else wanted and make them feel safe, loved and smart.
As the school’s creators would discover since its opening last year, it wouldn’t be easy.
In Oakland, black males post lower scores than English learners and virtually all other subgroups of students on standardized tests.
In addition, they miss more school. In 2011, 20 percent of black male students missed at least one day out of every two weeks of school.
The standard school system has not worked, said Patricia Nunley, a consultant to the charter school and a Mills College professor with expertise in black male student achievement.
“You’ve had 57 years and you have not done it,” Nunley said, referring to the mid-1950s forced desegregation of schools. “Honestly, do you really want them to keep failing?”
For many African American males, separate is not only equal but better, she said.
“I see our school for the most vulnerable black males,” Nunley said. “We’re going to send you back a better black person.”
In the courtyard of the former Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, the students lined up by grade – kindergartners on the right, sixth-graders on the left.
Teachers, administrators and other staff members nudged them to keep the lines straight. Untucked shirts were identified with a raised eyebrow, a pointed finger or a curt “Shirt!”
Principal Stanley Johnson stood in front of the students for the morning chant.
“Good morning, scholars!” he said with a raised voice. “Who are we?”
“We are readers. We are responsible,” the boys yelled in unison. “We are empowered. We are accountable. We are dependable. We are excellent. We are respectful.
“We are scholars with a goal! We are ready to learn!”
“Who’s ready to learn?” Johnson asked.
Then, line by line, they filed through the doorway and to their classrooms to start the day.
This daily ritual was an act of faith – faith that their repetition would make the words come true, despite the extraordinary obstacles this radical startup faced.
In the school’s five classrooms, three teachers were rookies – first-year teachers hired through Teach for America, briefly trained to work with disadvantaged students, but without professional credentials.
The two other teachers had decades of experience in public schools between them, but none in a race-based school.
Their pupils were disproportionately from single-parent and low-income homes. Many had been expelled from or suspended at their previous schools. Some struggled to cope with the mental-health effects of trauma and grief. Many had not succeeded in the standard school system.
These children needed to learn to read, to write, but also to believe in themselves and their potential, said Johnson, who has a doctorate in education but was serving as a principal for the first time.
“They need to learn and to understand how this will successfully make them great citizens. It starts with a mind-set, a paradigm shift,” Johnson said.
A scholastic culture
The school opened in September 2012 with 94 students in five grades: kindergarten, first and fourth through sixth. Its long-term plan calls for it to grow into a K-12 school with 900 students.
It is open only to boys – technically to males of any race. So far, only black families have opted to enroll.
Most of the teachers and staff are African American men.
At other schools, “there is a fear of black children,” said Mark Alexander, board chairman for the local 100 Black Men Inc., a professional organization for African American men that created the charter school. “We need teachers who are not afraid, who understand them, love them.”
The school is modeled after the well-regarded Eagle Academy public schools in New York, which offer inner-city males a college prep curriculum in a structured and ritual-filled schedule.
Students are required to wear uniforms – khaki pants, belt and white tucked-in shirt, with optional tie.
They are taught to walk down the center of the hall in silence, hands clasped in front of them as they go to class, lunch or recess.
And every student learned to sit up straight up in his chair, eyes on the teacher, hands clasped on the desk in the “scholar position.”
“Peacemakers” – African American men assigned to help enforce rules and resolve conflicts – monitored the playground, the cafeteria and hallways, and helped calm disruptive behavior in classrooms.
African American history, going back to African civilizations preceding slavery, and positive examples of black culture were emphasized.
Still, managing behavior was a daily struggle.
In the school’s fourth-grade class, more than half the 14 students faced “very, very legitimate challenges,” either developmentally or in their homes or community, said teacher Max Stafford-Glenn.
Some had learning disorders or were considered “emotionally disturbed,” a status that qualifies them for special education services. It is a disorder disproportionately associated with black males.
Other students had conditions that included depression or post-traumatic stress disorder related to the loss of a family member or other trauma.
“They are very rebellious. They’re very emotional,” Stafford-Glenn said. “It’s scary they’re so high-strung at such a young age.”
As a result, on some days it took his class an hour to get through two pages of a textbook.
Unruly students might be sent to the Restorative Justice room, a classroom where they could talk about their transgressions with an adult, discuss consequences and devise plans to avoid the behavior in the future. It offered an alternative to traditional discipline options, including suspension.
“We’ve got to get them to want to be in a classroom,” Stafford-Glenn said.
But the school did not work for everyone.
Two of its five teachers opted to leave, and Johnson resigned at the end of the school year to address family health issues.
The school gained a few new students over the year, but by school’s end, enrollment was 76, a net loss of 18 students.
Those who stayed had faith in the school’s formula, as well as the inherent belief that every black boy would succeed if he were given the chance.
“We’re going to create a culture that hopefully will be stronger than the streets,” 100 Black Men’s Alexander said.
On a bright fall day, a dozen students from the school’s sixth-grade class piled into a van headed to Oakland International Airport.
Aeronautics was one of several areas of study introduced by the new school, along with medicine and robotics.
“We want them to compete in the global marketplace,” Alexander said. “We’re going to fully utilize the resources the community has to offer.”
Pilot Sam Giddy and a Cessna 182 four-seater plane were waiting on the tarmac to take them up three at a time.
D’Marco Lindsey, 10, eyed the plane. “I like being on the ground,” he said. “It’s safe.”
He had never been on an airplane, but climbed into the co-pilot’s seat and buckled up.
The pilot, an African American man and member of 100 Black Men, reassured him.
“You’re safe, OK?” he said.
Minutes later, D’Marco was flying above East Oakland, the O.co Coliseum appearing as a small green oval below him.
“Wow!” D’Marco said through his headset as he stared out the window.
Twenty minutes later, D’Marco’s feet were back on the ground.
His dad, Marco Lindsey, a chaperone on the field trip and member of the school’s Dad’s Club, was waiting. He was thrilled that his son could see his city and the world in a different way while learning about a possible career option.
D’Marco said he’d like to fly again, but was still committed to a professional football career.
That’s fine, his dad said.
“It’s giving them the option in their mind,” Lindsey said, smiling. “This is the only way I want my son getting high.”
The Oakland charter school hopes to emulate the success of the Eagle Academy schools. Its high school has an 85 percent graduation rate, and 90 percent of those graduates attend a four-year college.
The new school is seeing some glimmers of hope.
There were just six suspensions all year, a significant drop from what the students posted at previous schools the year before, Alexander said.
Standardized test scores released earlier this month showed that 23 percent of the students tested were proficient or advanced in English and 31 percent were proficient or above in math – a bit lower than the scores for African American males across the district.
Yet 100 Black Men charter officials noted that many of the students, especially the older ones, had entered behind by at least one or more grades in reading, writing and math. Catching up, they say, will take some time.
And most first-year students are returning, along with an equal number of new students. Nearly 160 have signed up to attend this fall.
Alonzo Swift will be back for fifth grade, the next step on his path to Yale.
At his previous school, Emerson Elementary, said his mother, Sarah Perkins, he was labeled a troublemaker, a kid teachers didn’t want in their classrooms.
“The other school, they’re overworked, they’re underpaid,” she said. “They didn’t want to take the time for these kids.”
At 100 Black Men, Alonzo is thriving, she said.
His fourth-grade teacher frequently texted her and e-mailed pictures of Alonzo in class.
“I didn’t know they had schools like this,” Perkins, 40, said. “It’s a school that is demonstrating the future for an African American man.
“You can grow up to be a positive role model – you can be a teacher, you can run the school,” she said. “The possibilities are endless.”