Increasing Agency for Black Male Students Through Leadership


“Do you think students should get suspended at all?” I asked Deantae* during an interview about school. 

Without hesitation, he responded, “Not really because they are going to miss more days of school. Maybe after-school detention because you still want them to go to school and get their education.” 

Deantae, a 4th-grade student at Manzanita Community School, offered his opinion and a possible alternative to a district-wide problem that negatively impacts students who look like him. In previous non-pandemic school years (2017-2020), African-American/ Black male students made up 67% of suspensions at Manzanita despite making up roughly 15% of the student population. District-wide, there are similar trends and as Deantae explained, students out of their classroom, regardless of the reason, decrease learning opportunities. 

Prior to becoming the Assistant Principal in 2019, I was a member of the Culture and Climate Team which consists of school leadership, teachers, and various school staff members. This team reflected on suspension/referral data and prioritized the importance of antiracist teaching practices and continuous self-reflection among adults. As a part of this effort, monthly book study professional developments were initiated. These sessions provided a platform for teachers and staff to delve into literature that explored topics such as racial equity, cultural responsiveness, and dismantling systematic oppression. The goal was to encourage critical self-reflection, challenge existing teaching practices, and acknowledge personal biases. 

After three years as the Assistant Principal at Manzanita Community School, I was transitioning back to my previous position as the Physical Education (PE) teacher and joining the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Social Emotional Learning (SEL) elementary inquiry group. Regardless of my position, I was determined to develop strategies that improved agency for all students. Additionally, I knew I wanted to revive the Physical Education leadership program where 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students assist with lower grade PE classes. To ensure representation and inclusivity, I wanted to recruit a PE leadership team that reflected the student demographic. Interested students were required to complete an application and obtain teacher approval to miss some class time for their weekly leadership responsibilities. Despite the high demand of the program, I made a deliberate decision to shoulder tap a few students who showed potential but may not have initially considered themselves as leaders. Deantae was one of those students. After focusing on adult reflection as the Assistant Principal, I became interested in exploring the student perspective and the impact of leadership experiences on their overall educational journey.

One prediction that emerged from the inquiry process was that African-American/Black male students who actively engage in leadership roles at school would experience an increased sense of agency, leading to enhanced learning opportunities throughout the school day. Deantae, who began attending Manzanita the previous school year, started as a PE leader with Ms. Albert’s 1st grade class midway through the 2022-2023 school year. He was a shy, soft-spoken kid who was rarely seen without a mask on his face and hood over his head, regardless of the weather. It became evident that PE Leadership brought about significant positive changes in him. Working with the younger students, Deantae developed a newfound confidence in his abilities to lead and guide others. Like most PE leaders, he became a role model for his class, with the 1st-grade students looking up to him for guidance. Through our interactions during the year, I had the opportunity to learn so much about Deantae beyond his role as a leader. I discovered his passion for foreign cars, his love for science, and his creativity in crafting his own personalized workouts. One of the most notable positive outcomes of Deantae’s involvement in the PE leadership program was the improvement in his attendance. He attended school 84% of the time during the first two trimesters and 94% of the time after becoming a PE leader. Deantae’s increased confidence and comfort within the school community were evident as he gradually started to be seen without a mask around campus, displaying a greater sense of belonging and connection to the school environment.

This inquiry process had a profound impact on me as an educator. I realized the significance of providing students with things to look forward to at school beyond the traditional classroom setting. This process also served as a reminder of the crucial role that opportunity plays in a student’s educational experience. Going forward, I will be intentional in my PE leadership selection process, considering candidates who might defy the characteristics of a stereotypical leader. I am motivated to continue seeking innovative ways to empower students and cultivate agency through leadership.

Plans for the Future

  • More feedback from participating students
  • Informal observations of PE leaders and potential PE leaders
  • Feedback from teachers, support staff and family members

Jared Crayton-Thomas brings 15 years of experience at Manzanita Community School during which he has held the roles of Playworks coach, 4th/5th grade classroom teacher, Assistant Principal, and his current position as PE teacher. He also serves as the leader of the Culture and Climate team, fostering collaboration with community members to enhance student learning and joy. Outside of school, Jared enjoys spending quality time with his wife Steph and their beloved dog Ryder. In the summer, he is the owner and director of the Oakland youth baseball camp, East Bay BALL. He is a huge Golden State Warriors fan and can be found on the golf course in his free time.


*Changed name for student confidentiality