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Keeping kids alive and free

In 2011, about 82 percent of San Francisco’s students graduated from high school. Ten percent dropped out. Break it down by ethnic group and the numbers change in uncomfortable ways. For example, just 62.3 percent of the city’s African-American students graduated, and nearly 20 percent dropped out. The numbers for Latino students are similar. Kids need education and support, but resources are increasingly scarce. Often in these cases, in cities like San Francisco, nonprofits step in. Resources for those organizations are limited, too, but it helps to be able to show pretty much constant success.

The program has spent a quarter century helping local boys and girls get out of bad neighborhoods and into different mindsets.


The idea came to mind back in 1982, when Joe Marshall was teaching at Woodrow Wilson High School on the Southeast side of San Francisco. He thought he was pretty good at it, and by academic measures, he was. Then he realized that in a school serving low-income families, that wasn’t enough.


“They were getting A’s in math and F’s in life – and it’s tough to get a kid an A in math at 13 and go to his funeral at 19,” says Marshall.


Marshall said that he heard horror stories about his students.


“Many were ending up on drugs, in jail or pregnant,” says Marshall. “The worst thing to do was have to go to a funeral of a former student who was killed in a drug or gang-related incident.”


Marshall started to reflect on his own path. He’d grown up in St. Louis and then South Central L.A. As a young black man, he saw less than half of his African-American peers graduating from high school within four years.


Marshall had bucked the trend: he went to college at the University of San Francisco and became an advocate for civil rights. It wasn’t until he traveled to historically black colleges in the South that he found rooms full of African-American role models.


“It showed me that black men are way more than just thugs and non-serious students and athletes, I didn’t know anything at that time but it was great, I flourished,” says Marshall.


Marshall founded the Omega Boys Club with a fellow teacher, Jack Jacqua in 1987. It served both boys and girls in an after school program that offered academic tutoring and trained kids to stay off the streets, but Marshall says the program was not an immediate success.


“The early kids that I sent off to college did not do well, they weren’t prepared for college,” says Marshall. “I had a young man who wanted to go to college, very smart, a gang member who said he wanted to go to school, I sent him to college and he sold drugs on campus.”


In 1990, only 28 percent of African Americans who went to college got their degrees. Marshall realized the same problems were following many of them out of their neighborhoods.


“They get infected with a way of thinking. It’s really sad because you know when they have a virus, but they think they are ok,” says Marshall. “They think it’s bad luck, but no, they’ve been programmed that way.”


Programmed to fail. Once again, Marshall decided he could do more.


Andre Aikins remembers when Dr. Marshall visited his school: “He asked me a question, ‘How are you doing in school? I said man, I’m only here for a drivers’ license, he went ballistic!”


Dr. Marshall’s reaction to Aikins was a reaction he had to many kids who didn’t care about school. The story was a familiar one. In Aikins’ case he used to be a good student, and for that very reason kids jumped him, stole his money and made fun of him on the regular. He fought back, got into selling drugs, started ditching school.


Marshall made sure that Aikins could feel his disappointment. A week later, Aikins was at the Omega Boys Club, taking classes and focusing on his high school diploma. He got it, and then headed south to Grambling University.


Recently, Education Trust found that more African Americans succeed at colleges that engage both their academic and social lives at schools that identify dropout risks early. Support systems, it found, are just as important in higher education as they are in secondary school, where the Omega Boys Club began caring for Andre Aikins.


After attending Grambling University, Aikins became a Math teacher in Oakland and then a principle, and is now the Operations manager at the Omega Boys Club.


For the first time more than half of African Americans entering high school got their diploma within four years. It still lags far behind the rate for their white peers, who graduate at a 78 percent rate, but it’s progress.


Since 1987, the Omega Boys Club has helped up to 200 students graduate from high school. It’s become a model for similar programs around the country and abroad, including Haiti and Thailand, and South Africa, and still, Joe Marshall believes he can do more.


“I’m really excited about training more people and making more doctors," Marshall smiles. “There are people like me who want to help young people. I want to find them and train them so they can help young people where they are.”

This story originally aired on December 4, 2012. Omega Boys Club has since changed its name to Alive & Free. The organization is celebrating its 200 college graduates this Sunday.

Crosscurrents Education
Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.