This story is part of the "Men In America" series on All Things Considered.
Is America's dominant "man up" ethos a hypermasculine cultural construct, a tenet rooted in biological gender difference or something in between?
Educator Ashanti Branch doesn't much care or, more accurately, doesn't have time to care.
He's too busy trying to make a difference in boys' lives.
Boys in American public schools are suspended from and drop out of school at higher rates than girls. Black and Latino boys are suspended the most. Boys make up half of the student population in American public schools. But among those who are suspended multiple times and expelled, 75 percent are boys.
Branch, now an assistant principal at Montera Middle School in Oakland, Calif., is working to change that. When he first became a teacher about a decade ago at a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, Branch soon realized he had a problem with the boys: Nearly half of all black and Latino boys were failing his math class, and almost half were failing all their classes.
"That was not OK for me," he says. "I was not willing to sit back and watch that happen."
So in 2004, at San Lorenzo High School on the east side of San Francisco Bay, he founded the Ever Forward Club for boys.
"When I started it I told these young men, 'I'm gonna bribe you. I'm gonna buy you lunch once a week and you're basically gonna teach me how to be a better teacher.' "
He came to school early and stayed late. And he always tried to have something in his room for kids to snack on. He created a safe place where boys can talk with him and each other, play, hang out and do their homework without fear of being seen as weak or uncool. This year Branch started a new boys Ever Forward Club at Montera Middle School in Oakland.
A Bigger Tool Box
Branch tries to foster emotional maturity through conversation, play and community. The big goal is to help give boys a bigger emotional tool box to better handle the challenges of school and life now and into the future.
"The pain that they're holding on to that they don't really have a space to [let] go, the anger, the sadness — all those things. How can I help them tap into that in ways that they can let it go and not walk around angry all the time? I told one young man the other day: 'You walk around with a tool box full of hammers. You hammer everything. All you needed was a little screwdriver.' "
Branch is a burly, 39-year-old African-American with long, braided hair. He got a degree in civil engineering and had a successful career as a construction engineer and project manager. But he felt unfulfilled. He says he wanted to do more than make money. He followed his mother into the teaching profession.
"OK, check in and be respectful of each other, OK?" Branch shouts to about a dozen club members who've gathered on a recent Friday afternoon at Montera's courtyard. A new administrator here, Branch this school year brought his Ever Forward Club for boys to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders for the first time.
The kids stand and then sit in a semi-circle at the end of the school day — and school year. "So what are we gonna do, like, talk about our feelings like we always do?" one student asks with a smile.
Today, Branch has some questions for the group. "So what are some things we need to do better or different next year, like what are some things you all want to see?"
Jacob MacLeod has a ready answer. "More real sports so we can make it, like, more competitive." Other students suggest more field trips away from school, camping and BBQs.
Branch hopes his boys club chips away at the hypermasculinity of the "man up, be tough" code that he believes can block boys' empathy and retard their humanity.
"We're ... saying, 'You hate high school? Come with us.' We want to help high school become fun for you," he tells the boys. He firmly believes that the academic challenges can be overcome once boys bolster their sense of self and gain confidence. "The [schoolwork] is easy," he says, once they realize, " 'I just gotta get connected to who I am.' "
Big elements in helping boys connect to who they are include playing together, hanging out, laughing and, above all, talking. He says his Oakland roots regularly come in handy.
"This is where I grew up. So I tell kids, 'You know the game you're playing? Man, I know this game. I'm born and raised here.' I use that phrase at least once a week."
On this day, as part of their weekly conversation starter, he asks the boys to check in and talk about what kind of week they had.
Sixth-grader Cornell Flournoy-Alexander is wearing a sharp-looking, silken bathrobe. It gives him an air of pre-fight Muhammad Ali with a dash of Hugh Hefner.
"Well, today in history class it was 'A Day in Rome' and I was a gladiator. So I just decided to wear this robe. It's cool. I just like it," he says.
Alexander, Roman gladiator for a day, rates his week a 10 out of 10.
"I've raised up all my grades. And I don't have any F's. And, it's cool, but I'm kinda still confused how to get some grades up. Some of 'em are like D pluses. But today was a nice day," he tells his friends.
'We're All Brothers'
On a Friday afternoon at the end of a long week, and a long school year, the last thing many of the kids seem to want to do is sit still in the sun and talk.
There are some fits and starts and ubiquitous middle-school fart jokes: "Ohh off with his butt!" yells one student as kids scurry away from a flatulence bomb.
Yet remarkably the students soon settle down, sitting and listening to each other intently.
"I feel like we're all brothers and we can just talk about anything," says sixth-grader Terrence Austin. "And we play games together. And we really make a bond."
Seventh-grader Gabriel Goodspeed gives his week an '8' because, he says, his English teacher gave him a B on a project he was certain was A material.
"He made some pretty lame excuses about it. But I'm happy about today too. Like watching the game. That was really fun to see all my friends without having to worry about teachers. Some kids made some pretty bad choices today at the softball game," Goodspeed says.
Those bad choices he's referring to are the three eighth-graders who were busted with pot and rolling papers at the annual teachers vs. students softball game.
It's a familiar problem for Branch: Boys get sent to the principal's office far more often than girls. After years of teaching and running his after-school clubs, Branch says he has learned this: Sometimes boys just gotta move. So instead of playing disciplinary Whack-A-Mole with their frenetic energy, Branch says it's key to try to channel it when boys act out.
"Disruptive. Disruptive. Disruptive. I'm like, 'What's going on with you?' 'Oh all I did was go get a piece of paper from my friend.' And I'm like, 'OK, you're moving. Your body is trying to keep yourself awake. So you're moving.' "
So whenever needed he'll give boys a quick chore ... or errand.
"So you're gonna go water the garden, all right? You're gonna go water the garden."
Boys, he believes, are too often made to feel like they're in trouble because they're out of their seats. So he's learned to employ a safety valve dance time he calls "brain breaks." A little Michael Jackson to the rescue.
"Our boys are in trouble; they're in crisis now," Branch says. "Because of the type of energy that they are bringing to school, maybe they don't have the kind of house and neighborhood they can go play at in the evening."
In the two high schools where Branch has started Ever Forward Clubs, he says, they helped dramatically halt the class-failure and dropout rates. He says about 90 percent of the kids who went through his club went on to graduate.
'He Punched Her!'
But while overseeing the last Ever Forward meeting of the school year, he soon has to put out yet another fire. Welcome to the world of an assistant principal in Oakland: Word comes that a boy — not one of those in his boys club — has just punched a girl in the mouth. The girl's mother has arrived, and she's furious.
"This boy's a problem. You need to be callin' his parents. I'm pressing charges!" the mother shouts.
"I'll deal with this situation," Branch tries to tell her. Witnesses, however, say the girl student was also no angel. "Two sides to the story, ma'am."
"I don't care. Did she touch him?"
"I'm hearing two stories," Branch says again.
"He punched her, dude. He punched her. That's the only story you need to be hearin' right now!" the mother yells.
The police are called. Tense conversations and paperwork follow. Branch knows the boy with the hitting problem is likely to end up in one of his Ever Forward Clubs. You see, the Friday after-school club is voluntary, an elective. But the club's shorter Monday lunchtime sessions are not. Disruptive boys get an invitation and attendance is mandatory.
Branch has an ambitious goal to expand the Ever Forward Club to 20 public middle schools and 20 high schools by the fall of 2015. This summer he plans to start building a mentor-training arm for the program. He wants to expand the model to teachers and community members who want to get involved in a boys program he believes is changing lives.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. We're talking this summer about what it means to be a man America. And today we're looking at boys.
MARIO LEWIS: Boys love balls, boys love running, boys love getting dirty.
STEPHANIE COGGIN: They're like little monkeys. You can't tell them to calm down because it's their nature to be like that. There's bruises and boo-boos.
CHRISTIE WELSH: I would say that raising two boys is full of energy and chaos. I need to go grab one of them who is climbing on top of the tree house. Get down from there, thank you. I know you saw your friends doing that.
CORNISH: That's Christie Welsh (PH) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before that Stephanie Coggin (PH) and Mario Lewis (PH), both of Bridgeport, Connecticut. All three parents putting it out there boys are about action.
BLOCK: And that's often what gets them into trouble at the playground, at home and in school. A couple of facts to consider, 75 percent of students who are suspended multiple times and expelled are boys and boys are more likely than girls to become dropouts.
CORNISH: NPR's Eric Westervelt takes us to one middle school program in Oakland, California that's working to shift that trend.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY 1: I forgot it was students vs. teachers.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY 2: I'd choose pizza over ice cream.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Not long after becoming a teacher, Ashanti Branch, realized he had a problem with the boys. Almost half of all black and Latino boys were failing his high school math class and almost half of all their classes. They were smart kids and Branch couldn't understand why so many were failing and dropping out.
ASHANTI BRANCH: That was not OK for me. I was not willing to just sit back and watch that happen. I told these young men - I said look it, I'm going to bribe you. I'm going to buy you lunch once a week and you basically going to teach me how to be a better teacher.
WESTERVELT: At that East Bay High School, out of those free lunch listening sessions, Branch eventually created the Ever Forward Club. He came to school early, stayed late and always had something in his room for kids to eat and open ears.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY 3: Let's go, let's do this.
WESTERVELT: Slowly Branch created a safe place where boys could play, talk with him and each other and do their homework without fear of being seen as uncool or weak.
BRANCH: We like saying, you hate high school, come with us all right. 'Cause we want to help high school become fun for you and there for once it's fun for you - once you can realize that this is - the work is easy. I just have to get connected to who I am.
WESTERVELT: At that high school and now at Montera Middle School in Oakland Branch helped boys connect to who they are by playing together, hanging out, laughing and above all talking. The big goals is to give boys a bigger emotional toolbox to better handle the challenges of school and life - in essence, to help foster emotional maturity through dialogue.
BRANCH: The pain that they're holding on to that they don't really have a space of letting go, like the anger, the sadness and all those things. How do I help them tap into that in a way that they can like let it go and not walk around angry all the time? I told one young man the other day, you walk around with a toolbox full of hammers, you hammer everything. All you needed was a little screwdriver.
WESTERVELT: Branch is a burly 39-year-old African-American with long braided hair. He got a civil engineering degree and had a successful career as a construction engineer and project manager but he felt a bit unfulfilled. His mom's a teacher and he wanted to do more than make money. He became a public school teacher. Now an assistant principal at Oakland's Montera Middle School, Branch this year brought the Ever Forward Boys club to sixth, seventh and eighth graders for the first time.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY 4: What are we going to do? Talk about our feelings?
WESTERVELT: A dozen boys sit in a semi-circle at the end of the school day. Part of the aim of Branch's afterschool club is to chip away at the hyper-masculinity, the man-up code that Branch believes can impede boys empathy and retard their humanity.
BRANCH: What is some things we need to do better or different next year? Like what are some things you want to see?
JACOB MACLEOD: More real sports, so we can make it like competitive.
WESTERVELT: Jacob MacLeod and other club members start to rate their day and week, it's part of their weekly conversation starter check in. Sixth-grader Cornell Flournoy-Alexander has come to school this day wearing a sharp looking silken bathrobe. It gives him an air of pre-fight Mohammed Ali meets Hugh Hefner.
BRANCH: I like this robe, what you dressed as?
CORNELL FLOURNOY-ALEXANDER: Today in history class it was a day in Rome. I was a gladiator so I just decided to wear this robe.
WESTERVELT: Alexander gladiator for a day gives his week at 10.
FLOURNOY-ALEXANDER: I raised up all my grades and I don't have any F's. It's cool but I'm kind of still confused how to get up some grades even though they are not F's - some are like D pluses.
WESTERVELT: On Friday afternoon at the end of a long week and school year, the last thing many kids seem to want is to sit still and talk. There are fits and starts including the occasional fart joke disruptions.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY 5: Jacob, why you farting?>>MACLEOD: No, I didn't.
WESTERVELT: But remarkably the boys mostly sit and listen to each other intently. Sixth-grader Terrence Austin...
TERRENCE AUSTIN: I feel like we're all brothers and we can just talk about anything and we play games together and we really make a bond.
WESTERVELT: Seventh-grader Gabriel Goodspeed gives his week and 8, as his en English teacher gave him a B on a project he was certain was A material.
GABRIEL GOODSPEED: He made some pretty lame excuses about it but I am pretty happy about today, watching the baseball game was fun to see all my friends without having to worry about teachers. Some people did some pretty some pretty bad choices today at the softball game.
WESTERVELT: Those bad choices he's referring to are the three kids busted for smoking pot at the end-of-the-year teachers vs. students softball game. It's a familiar problem for Branch. Boys get sent to the office more, a lot more. After years teaching and running his afterschool clubs Branch says he's learned this, sometimes boys just got to move. So instead of playing disciplinary whack a mole with boys frenetic energy Branch tries to channel it.
BRANCH: Disruptive, disruptive, disruptive. I'm like, what's going on with you, all I did was go get a piece of paper for my friend and I'm like, OK, you're moving. Your body is trying to keep itself awake, so you're moving.
WESTERVELT: So now he'll give them a quick chore or an errand.
BRANCH: You're going to water the garden. All right? You're going to go water the garden.
WESTERVELT: Branch says he didn't want boys to always feel like they're in trouble because they're out of their seats, so now he improvises. He'll often turn to a safety valve dance time he calls brain breaks - yep, a little Michael Jackson to the rescue.
BRANCH: Everyone's going to dance, move your body, I don't care what you do move your body, right. It began to change things and even that one minute of taking time out made everything else more productive.
WESTERVELT: But welcome the world of an assistant principal. Branch soon has to put out yet another fire. Word comes that a boy, not in his boys club, has punched a girl in the mouth. The girl's mom has arrived and she's livid.
UNIDENTIFIED MOTHER: You need to be calling his parents. That's what you need be doing because I'm pressing charges.
BRANCH: I will deal with that situation, I promise you.
WESTERVELT: Witnesses however say the girl was also no angel.
BRANCH: There's two sides to the story ma'am.
MOTHER: I don't care. Did she touch him?
BRANCH: I'm hearing two stories.
MOTHER: He punched her dude. He punched her. That's the only story you need to be caring about now...
WESTERVELT: The police come. Tense conversations and paperwork follow. Branch knows the boy with the hitting problem needs to be in one of his Ever Forward Clubs. You see the Friday after school club is voluntary. But the clubs Monday lunchtime sessions are not. Disruptive boys get an invitation and attendance is mandatory. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.