Oakland Program Seeded Idea for District's New African-American Girls Initiative

Sultanah Corbett poses after class with her students who have participated in the African American Female Achievement Initiative for the last two years. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

The Oakland Unified School District has made a big push to help more African-American boys do better in school, creating an entire academic approach to boosting them. And that left Sultanah Corbett asking: What about our girls?

“The focus being on males is very unfair,” Corbett said, referring to the district's African-American Male Achievement initiative.

Nationwide, black girls are suspended at higher rates than any other ethnicity. And in Oakland African-American girls experience disproportionate suspension rates, and the district reported a slight uptick in expulsions of black girls last year. Corbett has been teaching third grade at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School and says she saw some of the issues her girls were dealing with.

“They have something called racial battle fatigue," said Corbett. "We also pay attention to sexual battle fatigue. Girls on the day to day are made to look at themselves as not worthy enough, not strong enough, because they are female."

As a result, Corbett began an after-school program in 2014 aimed at boosting girls' image of themselves and called it African American Female Achievement Initiative (AAFAI). It was a natural move for this third-grade teacher with a master’s degree in equity and social justice in education.

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At the after-school program at MLK Elementary you can sometimes find a group of girls singing their theme song.

“A - A - F - A - I. We’re here to be alive. Determined to survive. Strong. Bold. Smart. And fly.”

Corbett believes female students have unique issues that boys don’t. By creating the AAFAI program she wanted to give girls and educators a chance to call them out.

The girls get a dose of technology, song, dance, science and history focusing on female leaders like Madam C.J. Walker, a philanthropist and entrepreneur who created hair products for African-Americans in the early 1900s.

"She inspired me to grow up being an inventor," said fourth-grader Eleyah Fale.

District Takes Note

Oakland Unified School District is now planning to scale up this kind of initiative to bring it districtwide. It may provide specific programming, curriculum and teacher training in an attempt to better serve Oakland’s black female student population.

When Corbett presented the program to the OUSD board in 2014, she envisioned a district office designated just for African-American girls, she said. At the time, her after-school program had only 20 students. It grew to about 35 students in the last school year, and now there are roughly 75 students participating, she said. Corbett also created several partnerships over that time and received seed money from OUSD to grow the program.

Last year, Corbett said she helped OUSD research what a larger systemwide African-American female initiative might look like.

The district recently announced its own African American Girls & Young Women Achievement initiative, which follows OUSD's nationally recognized African American Male Achievement initiative that officially launched in 2010. Since then, the district reports African-American male suspensions have been reduced. And graduation rates have increased along with attendance, said Chris Chatmon, deputy chief of equity and formerly the director and founder of AAMA.

Chatmon said the approach with boys is about changing school culture, teaching more relevant books that highlight different black leaders, and training teachers to better respond to the needs of black male students. And the focus needs to be consistent. “The key emphasis is during the school day, Monday through Friday,” he said.

Fewer students are being referred for an expulsion hearing, and last year the school board passed a policy to stop suspending students for willful defiance.

But during the 2015-2016 school year, the number of black female students expelled ticked up from two the previous year to eight. African-American male expulsions increased from eight to nine. And Latino male expulsions increased from four to nine. The district also plans special programming for Latino students, said Chatmon.

AAFAI's Corbett said she looks forward to helping the district craft the initiative, including what will be measured and how success will be accomplished.

"I need to be at the table. My voice is important," she said.

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Earlier this year she interviewed but didn't get the position as director of the district's African American Girls & Young Women Achievement initiative, Corbett said.  The new director, Dr. Nzingha Dugas, starts Sept. 12.

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