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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Benjamin Shenouda of Stockdale High accepts the first Project BEST (Black Excellence for Scholarship and Teaching) Student of the Year Award from Gayle Batey as Fuchsia Ward, Scholarship Committee chair, holds the trophy that will reside at his high school for the next year during the Project BEST 2013 Senior Scholarship Awards Ceremony held in West High School's auditorium Thursday.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Reggie Roberson, a technical assistant with Chevron and a West High graduate, addresses the Project BEST (Black Excellence in Scholarship and Teaching) awards receipients-to-be before presenting a check toward scholarships on Thursday night in the West High School auditorium.

It looked like a commencement exercise, the rows of black male teens in neckties or sweater vests and neatly creased slacks.

One by one they rose as Project BEST scholarship committee chairwoman Fuschsia Ward called out their names, grouped by school, and announced where they had been accepted to college. Then she handed them checks as beaming parents cheered.

It's been more than two decades since the founding of Project BEST, which stands for Black Excellence in Scholarship and Teaching. The program was founded in response to a series of articles in this newspaper that listed alarming statistics about young black males.

The dropout rate for black students in general was 40 percent higher than for the Kern High School District as a whole, and the rate of black males quitting school was 70 percent higher than for black females.

"Something had to be done," said Chris Dutton, Project BEST executive director and site administrator for the Kern High School District's Tierra Del Sol Continuation High School. "You can't have information like that and not do anything about it. That would be immoral."

Educators and community leaders gathered to brainstorm ways to combat the problem. Gayle Batey, a local real estate agent, led the charge, donating $50,000 in seed money for a pilot program at Bakersfield, South and West high schools.

Project BEST would foster academic success through tutoring, counseling, mentoring and assistance with college and scholarship applications, as well as visits to college campuses.

And to make sure financial barriers didn't hold promising students back from higher education, there would be scholarships. Chevron kicked in some money the first year, later joined by other businesses large and small and a parade of individual donors.

On Thursday, as the program presented roughly $160,000 in scholarships of various amounts to about 60 students, Project BEST paused for a moment to reflect.

Last year, the KHSD dropout rate was 14.5 percent overall, down from 29.3 percent in 1994, said KHSD Superintendent Don Carter.

The dropout rate for black students was 17.6 percent, only 18 percent above the district rate compared with 40 percent in 1994, he said.

And in 2012, the dropout rate for black males was 17.1 percent, 5 percent below the dropout rate for black females. That's a stunning reversal of the 70 percent higher rate of black male dropouts over black female dropouts in 1994.

Batey, whose collaboration 21 years ago with then-Superintendent Tom Jones is widely credited with planting the seed, called the progress a community effort.

"There have been many, many, many people who have watered that seed," she said.

Project BEST has since grown from three to 13 campuses, each with its own campus advisor. And its alumni are returning to mentor younger generations.

Before Chevron technical assistant Reggie Roberson presented a $15,000 check for ongoing scholarship support, he noted that he was a Project BEST graduate who had gone through the program at West High School.

But there's still a lot of work to do, said Patrick Jackson, president of the Bakersfield branch of the NAACP.

While he lauds and appreciates outreach to teenagers, he'd like to see retention efforts start sooner.

"It goes all the way back to the elementary schools, making sure those kids have the right foundation so they can succeed in high school and college," Jackson said. "It's a lifelong effort."

It's hard to say why the black dropout rate is so high, but poverty certainly plays a role, said Tom Corson, executive director of the Kern County Network for Children.

"What we see across the board of child well-being, including education, is family economics and income is important, and African-American students have higher poverty rates compared with children of other racial and ethnic groups," Corson said. "My theory is if a kid goes to school and their belly's empty, it's hard to learn."

About 45 percent of Kern County's black children live in poverty, compared with 30 percent of children of all races and ethnicities and 36 percent of Latino children.

The dearth of positive role models in poorer neighborhoods is devastating, said Alpha Nesbitt, assistant dean at West and the school's Project BEST advisor.

Nesbitt, 61, grew up in segregated Oklahoma, where blacks were forced to start and patronize their own businesses because whites wouldn't hire or serve them.

When Nesbitt was a child, black doctors, lawyers, educators and entrepreneurs were everywhere you looked.

"They were nurturing us, correcting us. The way we walked. The way we talked. That was all I ever knew," he said.

But today, black communities and families are fractured, and that has been deeply damaging, Nesbitt said.

Carnell Montgomery is a black 15-year-old sophomore at West who said stereotypical depictions of black teens in the media don't help matters.

"All you ever see of African-American males on the news or in music and all, it's not a positive image," Montgomery said. "So I think a lot of us, we take that in and we say, 'We're going to be perceived that way, anyway, so we might as well go on and accept it instead of asserting ourselves and saying, 'I'm better than that.'"

Project BEST is a different environment, students and volunteers involved in the program said.

It's telling that 90 percent of its participants graduate, compared with 70 percent black KHSD students who do not participate, Superintendent Carter said.

Instead of swimming against the tide in an ocean that beats you back, everyone in Project BEST is pulling you and your cohorts forward, said Stockdale High School senior Jordan Harrison, 17, who will attend Pepperdine University next fall.

"I felt that I was part of an elite group of young, educated, driven students," he said.

West senior Marcellis Carr Barfield, 18, credits Project BEST with easing his path to enrolling at UC Santa Barbara next year.

"I'm just glad there is a program out there that embraces us for who we are, not just for who everybody says we are," he said.

That's especially powerful in a region with a relatively small black community, Project BEST Executive Director Dutton said.

Blacks make up 5.1 percent of Kern County children age 17 and younger.

"That's not a huge number, so every student is critical," Dutton said.

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