The Social Justice Learning Institute’s Urban Scholars program started over a decade ago in Los Angeles, but it is just now starting to make its mark in the Houston- area with the goal of empowering students of color through education to change their communities.
Since 2019, Urban Scholars has been offered as an elective course or extra-curricular activity in five HISD schools: Attucks Middle School, Clifton Middle School, Sam Houston High School, Wheatley High School and Worthing High School.
Currently, the program is for boys of color, ages 12-18, with a curriculum for girls in development and expected next year.
Jarett Fields, educational equity programs director for SJLI said the initial focus on Black and Hispanic young men is intentional.
“One out of every four or five are not graduating from high school. And 80% of juvenile crimes are committed by young boys. They’re being arrested at higher rates than everyone else. If we want to not only tip the needle but tip the scales and really transform the community, we want to work with the students,” Fields said.
At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, the sounds of group chants about brotherhood can be heard coming from the Urban Scholars classroom at Clifton Middle School.
“Whenever we walk in here, we are all family. We all treat each other equally. We love and respect each other and give each other our undivided attention,” said 13-year-old Cameron Qualls.
The Urban Scholars program focuses on four key areas: academic and career development, social and emotional learning, self-esteem development and leadership training.
“We’re graduating young men who are ready to make positive change in our community,” Fields said.
Kristopher Walker, who teaches the Urban Scholars class, is helping create that change.
Walker is a former Clifton student and said the Urban Scholars program gives him a chance to provide students with something he needed at their age.
“The opportunity to see themselves as they relate to the environment around them and their homes and school,” he said.
The impact on the Urban Scholars is evident as they work through questions designed to broaden their perspectives.
“He makes us think about stuff that we don’t normally think about in school,” said student David Campbell.
The year-long course culminates with a research project, tackling tough topics through a social justice lens.
“If there’s something on their hearts we’ll talk it out. That leads to some really intense moments, but some moments that are nurturing and building and can overall help their communities because they’ll be better people for it,” Walker said.