High rates of chronic absence, suspension and poor academic performance signal that more than half of African American male students in the Oakland Unified School District are at risk of dropping out, according to new research.
The Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland-based community advocacy organization, found significant disparities between African American boys and their peers: Fifty-five percent of black boys in the 2010-11 school year were falling off course from graduation or were at risk of doing so, compared with 37.5 percent of students overall in the district.
From kindergarten through 12th grade, researchers found that black boys struggled with regular attendance and suspensions and scoring proficiently on standardized tests or maintaining grades above a C average – warning signs that they might drop out.
Among African American males who were not on track to graduate, 73 percent in elementary school were chronically absent, missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, according to the findings released this week. In middle school, the same percentage had been suspended at least once. Nearly two-thirds of high schoolers were chronically absent and had less than a C average; 41 percent had been suspended at least once.
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"We need to understand what's going on if we're going to effectively intervene and improve outcomes and graduation and success of African American males," said Junious Williams, chief executive officer of the council.
The council's reports on dropout indicators are part of Oakland Unified's African American Male Achievement Initiative, an effort launched in 2010 to improve academic and social equity for black boys. The findings provide "a sense of urgency" for the district, said Chris Chatmon, executive director of the district's Office of African American Male Achievement.
Chatmon, who plans to hold a community meeting next month to discuss the council's findings, said improving attendance among black boys requires working with other agencies and the community and presents different challenges in different age groups.
In kindergarten and first grade, African American boys in the district were more than four times as likely as their white peers to be chronically absent, the council found.
"Five-year-olds don't miss school without an adult knowing at home," said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, an initiative that seeks to improve student success by reducing chronic absence.
Families might face hurdles, such as transportation or health problems, in getting their young children to school, or they might not understand the importance of kindergarten, said Chang, who has worked with Oakland Unified to address chronic absenteeism.
"Once you miss a month or more of school, and you miss a month or more in kindergarten and first, you're not on track for reading in third grade," she said. "We've got to make sure kids have a chance to start on the right track."
One way the district has tried to target chronic absenteeism among young black students is by working with the Oakland Housing Authority. Forty percent of students at four West Oakland schools live in public housing; 30 percent of those students were chronically absent in 2010-11. Chatmon said the district saw an uptick in school registration by reaching out to West Oakland families living in public housing.
By the time black boys reach middle and high school, different factors begin to undermine attendance, Chatmon said.
"Street culture becomes more attractive than learning and school culture," he said. "How do we define school culture? What is it? What would get our students getting up at 5 in the morning, running to school? … You get school culture right, then you will produce African American boys that produce high academic outcomes."
Cultural clashes and misunderstandings also factor into high rates of suspension among black boys, Chatmon and Williams said.
"We still have a teaching and administrative body that doesn't … understand the cultural context of where our students come from," Chatmon said. "We have to do a lot of work with our adults to authentically engage with our boys, with our families, to understand our community context."
African American boys made up 17 percent of Oakland Unified students in 2010-11, yet they represented 42 percent of students suspended. Disruption or defiance of authority was the most common reason for discipline, accounting for 38 percent of their suspensions.
Subjective standards for disruption and defiance – the reason behind more than 40 percent of suspensions in California and the recent target of criticism and legislative action – could be contributing to high suspension rates among black boys, Williams said.
The council recommended that Oakland Unified carefully monitor such offenses and clearly define what constitutes impermissible behavior. The district also needs strategies for prevention and intervention so students are not suspended for single incidents, Williams said.
In many ways, Chatmon said, that work already has started.
"This is a 'we' problem," he said. "We are taking this on with the frame of full-service community schools that call out everybody, humbly. We can't do it in isolation."