In the first hour of the first day of school Tuesday, the sixth-grade Oakland boy was sure he was in trouble for goofing off. His teacher, Peter Wilson, had stopped his lesson in mid-sentence and turned his attention to the African American preteen, who now wore an uh-oh expression as he braced for a rebuke. “Did you eat breakfast this morning?” Wilson asked quietly as the confused boy shook his head no. “Your actions are telling me you’re hungry.” The teacher, also African American, then promised to bring fruit and granola bars the next day and returned to teaching. The boy’s behavior immediately improved.That might not have been the result at other Oakland middle schools, where a third of black males were suspended at least once last year.
But at the 100 Black Men Community School, a new all-male public charter school, educators and organizers say they refuse to accept those odds – or any of the other statistics associated with black boys that include higher dropout rates, lower test scores and disproportionate placement in special education programs.
The school, started and financially supported by the Bay Area chapter of the 100 Black Men nonprofit organization, is open to all male students, but it was created specifically for issues facing black boys – including difficult family lives, street culture, community violence and lack of male role models outside professional sports and the music industry.
“We know our children can perform as well as any other children,” said Dr. Mark Alexander, an epidemiologist and chairman of the board for the local 100 Black Men. “We’re going to create a culture that hopefully will be stronger than the streets.”
Not about segregation
While the idea of a black boys school might sound counterintuitive given the efforts of past generations to desegregate public schools, it’s not about racial segregation, school organizers said.
It’s about recognizing that the status quo isn’t working and identifying the specific needs of African American young men. Not all teachers are prepared to deal with those needs, said Derrick Bulles, of the Bay Area 100 Black Men.
Too often, African American boys get marginalized; teachers don’t understand them or fear them, Bulles said.
At 100 Black Men Community School, most of the instructors, administrators and board members are black males.
“We don’t have that problem,” he said. “They’re our boys. We are best able to manage that.”
Organizers say the school will be rigorous while focusing on African American culture and individual identity based on a wide range of role models.
A moment to remember
Parent Dorcia White was among the parents snapping first-day photos Tuesday, even though her sixth-grade son, Drake, looked slightly annoyed. She looked at Drake’s digital image on her phone and saw a leader, not a dropout.
“I decided to send him here because of the data on African American males in the district,” White said. “I didn’t want him to get lost in that.”
Students arrived at school in their uniforms of khaki pants and white shirts, some looking excited, others looking sleepy.
Terrell Wrice, 11, was happy to be there.
“The school gives us a different feeling – equal in one environment,” he said, adding that the only downside was a lack of girls.
The school opened its doors to 90 students, but expects to enroll 120 male students in kindergarten and first, fourth, fifth and sixth grades this year and eventually add grades to grow into a K-12 with 900 students.
Mentors will be an integral part of the school, which will offer pre-med, aeronautics, robotics and other math and science programs.
It was modeled in part after the Eagle Academy for Young Men, started by the 100 Black Men New York chapter in 2004, where the graduation rate is more than 80 percent compared with 30 percent for African American males across New York City.
Back in class, sixth-grade teacher Wilson was planting the seeds to produce similar statistics in seven years.
Several times throughout the morning, he asked students to repeat after him: “I am an intelligent student. I will act intelligently.”
He also reviewed class rules and encouraged his students to take school and themselves seriously.
“It takes a lot of energy to be bad,” he said.
“Intelligent students don’t talk with these,” Wilson said, as he balled up his fists before pointing to his head. “They talk with this.”
Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.