When capability meets opportunity, incredible things can happen. The more than eighty-five young men in colleges across the country who had the good fortune to come through the Bridge Builders Foundation’s (BBF) Start-to-Finish College For at least the past decade, there has been a shift in the political climate in Los Angeles involving discipline and policing in public schools. This comes in reaction to a racialized school-to-prison pipeline stemming from the punitive “zero tolerance” discipline policies. Negative behaviors among African American and Latinx students, for example: truancy, fighting, and vandalism had been criminalized 5 to 29 times more (depending on the infraction) than white students, and fueling a growing juvenile system. We are all aware of the numerous systemic disparities that African American males face in education and the criminal justice system in a state that spends about six times more for prisoners than students.  One institution is re-thinking how to address these challenges by using a more preventative approach to discipline, which may expand the opportunities for BBF to partner with more local schools.    

In February of 2021, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school board voted unanimously to decrease the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD) force by almost one-third, and to reroute the $25 million dollars for counselors, psychiatric social workers, restorative justice advisors, and “climate coaches” trained in de-escalation techniques.  Police will no longer patrol campuses and will only be called to respond to emergencies.  Currently, there are 53 targeted middle and high schools with large African American student enrollment, substandard academic performance, and chronic absenteeism.

Student advocacy groups and some community-based organizations are proponents of this decision, and they argue for more school-based positive interventions and supports to teach the school staff alternative ways to respond to student conflict from a restorative justice (RJ) approach.  This approach has the philosophy that every student deserves to be nurtured, cultivated, and guided to becoming a positive adult who values and who is valued in the community.  In practice, RJ uses counseling, integrated peace-building lessons, and conflict resolution strategies to repair harm and “reclaim” young people back into the school community verses “pushing students out” with tickets, fines, suspensions, and arrests. 

However, opponents to this decision argue that school board politics “will place students and staff in harm’s way.”  LA School Police Department Officers Association (LASPOA) cite an independent survey of students, staff, and parents representing all demographics believe that the presence of school police on campus keep students and staff safe and that the department should not be reduced.  Others believe that LAUSD school police officers, with a community-servant orientation, would make good candidates for these newly-created positions.

Wherever you are on this issue, BBF has already been doing the important work of nurturing and cultivating the hearts and minds of young African Americans and other students of color for decades.  Through meaningful partnerships with local public schools, corporate sponsors, and other non-profit organizations, BBF has already produced a thriving college-career-ready pipeline between students in underserved communities and African American industry leaders and role models. Perhaps this shift in district policy and practice underscores the demand for the reforms that produce the outcomes that BBF has been successful at achieving. We see that institutions are searching for solutions that BBF can and has been providing; investment in healthy relationships with role models, educational tools and opportunities, and community- building outreach and service.  This is how we build bridges in a changing climate.  Program are a testament to this truth. With 69 percent of the program participants graduating college within four years, and more young men enrolling each year, the goal is far greater than simply getting students into college. “We want our students to know what they’re getting into. We want them to know that they’re supported. We want them to know what to expect as African American young men arriving on these college campuses where they may or may not be wanted. Most of all, we want them to finish college and have a great quality of life,” says Wayne Moore, Board Member and Director of the Start-to-Finish College Program.

Having been the really smart, capable youngster without access to potential building opportunities, Moore, can identify with the access, hope and support the young men who come to their program need. Now, as a retired public administrator, his involvement with BBF since 2005 has allowed Moore and other affluent Black men to bend the arc of higher education engagement toward rather than away from the hundreds of African American males they serve.

With the National Center for Education Statistics’ Condition of Education 2020 report indicating that from 2000 to 2018, college enrollment among eighteen to twenty-four-year-old Blacks increased from 31 to 37 percent with the most visible increase being Black males, the numbers are going in the right direction. For this reason, BBF believes that continuing to match young men with mentors, continuing to award educational scholarships, continuing to provide information about internships and other resources, as well as continuing to make three to four strategic touches per year once a young man enters college is working. Additionally, success stories such as the young man who went on to become a Rhode Scholar, and the young man who had competing offers from the FBI, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the California State Police after leaving college, and the young man who is steadfastly pursuing medical school are indications that the BBF’s Start-to-Finish College Program is making an impact.

Reinforcing the high expectations BBF imposes upon its scholars to bolster success is solid yet evolving evidenced by the two recent COVID-19 induced virtual events. The first of which is the tradition of creating an automatic support base by connecting prior-year scholarship recipients to new freshman going to the same college. Even virtually, previous scholars attending colleges in Boston, Texas, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles eagerly joined the Zoom call to speak with current scholars. BBF also hosted a virtual Zoom workshop where African American college professors from UCLA and Pepperdine spoke to new students about what to expect in college. Again, this incredible opportunity was another step in the direction of preparing BBF’s students for a promising future.