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Changing the lives of Oakland teens "Ever Forward"

The Ever Forward Club has achieved a 100 percent high school graduation rate for its participants.

“The Ever Forward Club honestly saved my life, to sum it up,” says Oakland high school student Omar Bernall.

The Oakland Unified School District provides government-funded after-school programs to thirteen high schools around the Oakland area. The Ever Forward Club is one non-profit organization that is helping provide after school support.

Bernall has been involved with the group for four years and is now its president. Before he joined, his personal and academic lives were in a downward spiral.

“I got held back in ninth grade because I was coping with my life in negative ways. I was out with friends and never did my homework and I used to blame it on the absence of my father, because he was never in my life there for me, or my sister. I always used him as an excuse, not having a father there to show me what’s right and what’s wrong,” says Bernall.

Now a senior in high school, Bernall says Ever Forward founder Ashanti Branch, as well as the other mentors, have helped to shift his thinking around areas like going to college.

That can-do attitude is the idea behind the club – always moving forward, always improving who you can be.

Branch got this idea around ten years ago when his job as a civil engineer was not feeding his soul. After finishing his Masters at Mills College, he began teaching at San Lorenzo High School.

“I was teaching mathematics and what I really thought students need was a teacher who cared, a teacher who was prepared, a teacher who had passion and I was all those things but I still had these African-American and Latino boys that were not passing,” says Branch.

Branch began researching and found that 47 percent of African-American males and 43 percent of Latino males were failing half or more of their classes. He realized something was wrong. Branch felt he wasn’t reaching out to them, so decided to invite some young men together.

When eight of them showed up, Branch told them: “I’m gonna buy you lunch once a week. You come to this class and I’ll buy you lunch once a week, every Thursday, and let’s just talk. Let’s talk about the good, the bad, the ugly, let’s talk about more positive than negative but let’s talk about what it is that is in the way that is not letting you live the way you want to live.”

That’s how the Ever Forward Club began, says Branch.

Nine years later, Ever Forward has two locations with over 55 members and a few teachers who help coordinate the trips and meetings. 

Branch grew up without a father from a single mother on welfare. His life story has been a way to connect with the students. 

A teacher by day and a mentor during all other hours, the executive director says it has been a struggle to find funding for the Ever Forward Club. The group does not receive funding from the school because of its nonprofit status.

The students involved with the program have a 100 percent graduation rate from high school and 100 percent are being accepted into college.

But the problem for the Club is how it can continue to thrive.

Over 3,500 high school students participate in these types of programs every year thanks to funding from The After School Education and Safety Program fund, the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, and the City of Oakland.

Lizzy Schultz is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.

This piece originally aired on Monday, February 4, 2013.

Ashanti Branch is now a teacher at Montera Middle School in Oakland, and has started another Ever Forward chapter there.