In a Class of Their Own

Mojave High School pilot program designed to steer more black males toward college

Damond Wright stands up, takes his hands out of his pockets, and looks his classmates squarely in the eyes as he answers a question in Corey Gaither’s ninth-grade class. Those who are speaking out of turn receive a terse “Shhh” from the rest of the students. For many high school students, sharing an opinion in class might seem terrifying, but Wright’s classmates ardently clap and cheer him on. In this Mojave High School college-prep class, made up of all black males, the students say they have more courage to speak out, buoyed by peers with whom they share common experiences.

Wright didn’t always feel this type of support in school. “Back when I was in middle school, I didn’t used to do good,” he says. “And people used to say black people wouldn’t amount to anything. But coming into this program, Mr. Gaither’s teaching us nobody should tell us what we can’t do.”

Back in September, the North Las Vegas high school piloted a class with 23 black male freshmen and a black male teacher, supported by Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, a nationwide college-preparatory program for students who have the aptitude to succeed but need extra support. The class is part of AVID’s African-American Male Initiative, an effort to increase the number of students in this demographic who take honors and AP courses and graduate from college, arenas where black males are largely underrepresented. Principal Charity Varnado says the students benefit from a teacher with whom they can identify, as well as a curriculum that introduces culturally relevant books and discussions that make these students more engaged in learning.

The program, funded by the Citi Foundation, chose to target this demographic based on need and statistics. Last year, Mojave’s graduation rate for black males was about 44 percent, compared with almost 55 percent statewide. And according to grades released in November, 70 percent of all African-American males in the school had at least one D or F.

Gaither says his approach from the very beginning was to be direct with his students. “I told them the national statistics: 50 percent of the prison population is African-American,” he says. “When it comes to being expelled, suspended and dean’s list referrals, it’s black males. I have a problem with that.”

The school sent a letter to the parents of incoming freshmen before the school year started, asking students to apply to the elective class. Mojave is one of six schools nationwide testing the program and one of only two schools that has implemented the practices into the classroom.

The ultimate measure of the program’s success is whether the students graduate from college. Gaither will teach the students all four years of high school, and he says the freshmen are already thinking realistically about the future. “They realize they might not be a football star,” he says. “So they’re thinking of secondary plans—teachers, lawyers, businessmen.”

For now, the school can only measure what it sees from the students on a day-to-day basis, says Jennifer Mohammad, assistant principal and coordinator of the program. Counselors are in the process of comparing middle school grades and behavior issues with first-semester statistics for the students in the program.

But anecdotally, the students are reporting good news.

Devin Flowers, 15, said he had to transfer schools last year because he got into a fight with a teacher. “Now in this program, I’ve learned how to get along with teachers. And I keep my grades up,” he says.

The program has fairly steep requirements. The students take honors and AP courses and must improve their GPA each year, graduating with at least a 3.5.

Gaither helps the kids with coursework from other classes, and also teaches them skills that extend to all subject areas, such as research methods, SAT vocabulary words and note taking.

He also says his curriculum is authentic, noting that he’ll bring in relevant newspaper articles to get the students talking. They recently read a story on rap artist Eminem’s new professional clothing style, sparking a conversation about what it means to become a working adult. “We talked about sagging—that’s an issue,” Gaither says. “It was like Opinion City. Why we sag; why we shouldn’t; why we do; why we don’t.”

The class also allows students to discuss issues of race in a way they might not be able to in another class, Gaither says.

“There is still racism in the hallways…But oh, they’ll say, ‘She doesn’t like me because I’m black,’ and we’ll get down to the fact that no, it was probably something that they did. Not everybody is racist, and I need to teach them that.”

Gaither says he realizes how important his job as a role model is since black male teachers are so rare. And that might be the very problem the initiative will run in to, according to Patrick Gibbons, education policy analyst at Nevada Policy Research Institute.

“We know that the African-American need is not being served by public education at this point. … Is this program the answer? I don’t know,” Gibbons says. “But given the fact that 90 percent of the teachers in Nevada are white, if the program proves successful, it couldn’t expand very far.”

One solution would be to implement a program in Nevada such as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, a nonprofit group that makes teacher certification convenient and affordable, Gibbons says. Twenty-three percent of the board’s teacher candidates are minorities, according to its website.

The ultimate goal of the African-American Male Initiative, according to Gaither, is to create a domino effect in terms of black males going to college. “They might come from poverty. They deal with gangs from this community. … Don’t forget where you came from,” he says. “Come back and do what we did for you. It’s going to grow exponentially. We have got to give back.”