By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Student Chris Krebs meets Mark Twain during a field trip to UC Berkeley sponsored by the Boys and Men of Color program.
Fourteen-year-old Chris Krebs will never forget his field trip to UC Berkeley. The eighth-grader was amazed at how large a university could be and how much there really is to learn after high school.
“I liked the library, because I like to read a lot,” says Krebs, a student at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland. “I learned from the visit that college is important. Before that, I didn’t think it was important and didn’t want to go, but now I do.”
Krebs’ inspirational visit to a university was a field trip that was sponsored by the Boys and Men of Color (BMOC) program at his school site. The BMOC program was created by CTA’s Community Outreach and Human Rights departments and is funded by a grant from The California Endowment with the goal of closing the achievement gap. BMOC students visit colleges and community businesses, engage in community service, and listen to guest speakers with inspiring stories. CTA members and staff involved in the program serve as role models and mentors by supervising fun, educational outings and events outside of the regular school day. Parents are involved, too, volunteering for field trips and activities. Founded three years ago, the BMOC program is also in place at Markham Elementary School in Oakland and Hillcrest Drive Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles. Topics discussed at BMOC meetings include conflict resolution, health and nutrition, and good decision-making.
Krebs says that the program has influenced him to work harder. “The teachers in there push me to be on the honor roll,” he says. “I used to be bad and sent out of class, but now I’m mostly staying in class and doing all my homework.”
The program was recently studied by Mary Kreger, a senior researcher at Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at UC San Francisco. She found that students in BMOC programs had increased reading scores by 5 percent in Oakland schools after three years, and to a lesser degree in Los Angeles, where the program has been in place for only two years.
CTA members involved in BMOC also believe the program is making a difference.
“I have really seen changes with the students. A lot of them are more focused,” says Nikita Gibbs, a third-grade teacher who coordinates the program at Markham Elementary School. “One little boy told me he was going to drop out, but after a visit to San Jose State, he now wants to go to college.”
Gibbs, a member of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), decided to become involved because she wants to help close the achievement gap.
“I believe we are in a state of emergency with our African American and Latino boys,” she says. “I see the achievement gap getting wider, and programs that are geared toward motivating boys of color to be successful are the key.”
Sonia Martin-Solis, a second-grade teacher at Hillcrest Drive Elementary School in Los Angeles who has helped chaperone field trips, says the program has improved the behavior and attitudes of participants.
“They learn a lot about one another and seem to be much more tolerant of each other — and also the other kids at school,” says the United Teachers Los Angeles member. “They are much more accepting of each other and willing to have conversations with each other instead of reverting to an altercation. They are much more willing to talk things out.”
She is especially pleased to see African American and Latino boys getting along. “They are seeing the commonalities instead of the differences,” she says. “They realize both groups have had to overcome common struggles as far as poverty and stereotypes of who they are and what they represent based on the color of their skin or language.”
Keith Brown, an OEA member and coordinator for the BMOC program at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland, also sees the BMOC program having an impact.
At UC Berkeley, says Brown, students toured dorms, visited classrooms and libraries, and talked to students of color. By talking to college students “who looked just like them,” the youngsters saw higher education as being accessible, desirable and fun, and understood there can be a balance between receiving an education and also having a social life.
“We also visited Electronic Arts, a Pixar video game company that produces popular video games students recognized,” says Brown. “It made a powerful impression for them to see that skills are needed to produce these games and that it’s possible to have a career doing something you enjoy. They learned that a job at Electronic Arts requires ‘hard skills’ like math and science, and ‘soft skills’ like being a good listener or team building. After this, our students saw the connections between working and school and why education is important.”
Teachers who head BMOC at individual school sites are in charge of selecting students for the program. According to the program’s criteria, these students must have a C average, attend school more than 80 percent of the time, and have minor behavior issues.
“We select kids who are kind of in the middle of the road,” says Brown. “Often, as educators, we put a lot of energy and focus on students who have severe discipline issues or students who are very far below basic, or those who excel at school. But students somewhere in between sometimes don’t get the nurturing and attention they deserve. They can be swayed through peer pressure not to take school seriously or to drop out or get involved in gang activity. It’s important to really mentor and cultivate those students who might otherwise get neglected in our own school system.”
Brown says being involved with BMOC is a way of giving back to the community. Years ago, when he was a student at the middle school where he now teaches, he had the opportunity to visit UC Berkeley, meet with college students and take summer classes.
“A program like this had a positive impact on me, and I feel good about having the opportunity to provide a similar program for black and Latino students at my school,” he says. “I think programs like this are essential to show that teachers — and unions — are first and foremost when it comes to supporting public education and taking an active role in fostering community connections to provide powerful learning.”
For more information or to start a BMOC group on your campus, contact the CTA Human Rights/Community Outreach departments at (650) 552-5313.