Banner year for Long Beach program celebrating young male graduates of color

Long Beach high school student Justin Hatchett is one of 16 African-American students who are the first to graduate with the help of a four-year tutoring and college-readiness program.
Long Beach high school student Justin Hatchett is one of 16 African-American students who are the first to graduate with the help of a four-year tutoring and college-readiness program.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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At Jordan High School in Long Beach, a noticeable gap separated the 77 percent graduation rate of African-Americans and the 82 percent rate for the entire Class of 2014.

Among African-American male graduates, just 24 percent passed classes required by the University of California for entry.

It's numbers like these that have spurred President Obama and others to call for programs that support young men of color through the obstacles in their lives so they can stay in school and enter college.

For the past four years, a program at Jordan High has been doing just that. This week, the Cal State Long Beach-Long Beach Unified Math Collaborative graduates over a dozen seniors. 

Their achievement is a cause of celebration in the North Long Beach community surrounding the school. A couple of weeks ago, crews strung banners from Atlantic Avenue's street lights listing the names of all Jordan graduates going to college or the military.

“This banner says to the City of Long Beach that North Long Beach is a college-going culture, that we intend to send our kids to college. We intend to make a better life for them,” said Jordan High Co-Principal Shawn Ashley.

“It says to the kids who live in North Long Beach: ‘I want to be one of those people because I want my name on a banner one day and I want to go to college.’”   

Justin Hatchett’s name is among those on the banners, along with that of the school valedictorian, Christine Henzon. Both are attending four-year universities in the fall.

“This is a great deal to me, actually, because I never thought I would be up here — actually, with Christine, because she’s our valedictorian. But I’m with her,” Justin said. “So that must mean I’m doing something right.”

Justin has been accepted into California State University, Long Beach, helped in large part by a collaboration of the university and the Long Beach Unified School District. The tutoring and college readiness program focuses on preparing African-American youth for college with an emphasis on math proficiency.

“They push you to be college-bound,” Justin said. Students tour colleges during the summers and live on campus for about a month to experience what college is like. “You major in math, so it’s like a math program. And if you have lower than a 3.5 [grade point average] you have to go to tutoring every day, Monday through Thursday.”

The need to support Jordan High's black male students in particular becomes clear looking at the numbers: they achieved a 65.9 percent graduation rate in the 2013-2014 school year while the rate for black girls in the same class approached nearly 90 percent.

The support program is largely funded by private donors, said Doris Robinson, who runs the collaborative as its director. The support begins early; Justin is in a group of students who have been receiving extra help since they finished eighth grade, she said.

“This is our first graduation class, and we’re very excited,” Robinson said. “We have 16 African-American males who are going to college. All of them have signed up somewhere.”

That outcome has not been easy to achieve, said high school counselor Anthony Winston.

"A lot of the students don’t have computers. They have to rely on the school to provide a lot of technology for them that the parents can’t afford," Winston said.

Walking to and from school, he said, they may pass acquaintances who encourage them to ditch classes. But those challenges aren’t the toughest ones, said Robinson.

”You know, we have some students whose parents are in jail, relatives are in jail, and that may be the route they had taken,” she said. “So what we need to do is break that cycle — the cycle of drugs, gangs, poverty — so that all of our students are moving on.”

Last month, Obama helped launch a nonprofit group called My Brother’s Keeper Alliance that will give out grants to programs like the Long Beach collaborative.

D’Artagnan Scorza, founder of the Social Justice Learning Institute, said such efforts are needed because schools have done a poor job of treating young men of color as individuals and helping them achieve.

“What we find, especially when it comes to boys and men of color, is that their needs are often not taken into consideration in traditional school settings. And so we know that, especially African-American males, are more likely to be singled out for zero tolerance policies or to be suspended,” he said.

Scorza said the math collaborative at Jordan High could serve as a model for similar programs nationwide. But to lift up the lowest-achieving students will not only take Obama's backing, but additional resources as well. 

As the banner bearing his name rose above Atlantic Avenue for all to see, Justin Hatchett flashed a confident smile. "I feel like I’m going to make it in life now," he said.