Launched by the Oakland Unified School District in 2010, the African American Male Achievement program wrapped up its first semester at Mission High School in San Francisco this month.
According to the OUSD website, the program’s stated goal is to “stop the epidemic failure of African American male students” and is designed to improve their academic and life outcomes. After several academic years in Oakland, the program expanded across the bay to San Francisco for the first time this fall.
Written on a whiteboard in a classroom at Mission High School, the first and only S.F. high school to launch the program, the objective is written simply: "Engage. Encourage. Empower."
The program’s curriculum places an emphasis on African-American history that empowers young men. Through unconventional methods of teaching like chanting and music, students receive lessons on major civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, and not on history lessons that focus on slavery or oppression of blacks.
“[Students can] finally come into a space they own. They can challenge the status quo,” said Jeremy Vasquez, a Mission High School teacher who leads the African American Male Achievement program there. “They’re able to come into [an academic environment] that is known to be institutionally racist and speak on it. ‘Like, we’re doing the slavery [topic] again? Again? I’ve heard this every single year I’ve been in school. Can we change the narrative?’ ”
In addition to teaching African-American males about their cultural identity, the program encourages students to address each other using the term “king.” Vasquez says there has been backlash from certain Mission High School teachers who say the program is divisive, even crossing out the word “king” when students write it before their name on homework and tests.
“When [Mr. Vasquez] calls us kings, and keeps saying it and saying it, we start to believe it. We start to act like it and we become better people,” said Benjamin Knight, a 15-year-old Mission High School student.
Several students who finished the fall semester said their lives have been forever changed by the program. Students will continue the class during the spring semester.
“Jeremy teaches us real things, like what’s actually happening. But in other classes they don’t talk about it. They just go to a different topic. Professors talked about the election more than Black Lives Matter or someone being killed,” said Jamarion Speed, a 15-year-old Mission High School student.
“I truly believe that every community needs this program,” said Vasquez.
The project’s San Francisco pilot program also debuted in three middle schools this year: Willie L. Brown Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. and Visitacion Valley.
Also during the 2017 spring semester, Mission High School will launch its first African American Girls and Young Women Achievement program.
Correction: The program is an elective class that all male African American students are encouraged to take. It is not a mandatory requirement.