While the rest of the campus empties, the Kennedy Young Men’s Group settles in like it does every Friday afternoon.
Ten young men settle around a table in a cubicle near the back of the Kennedy High School Health Center. Unwrapping Hot Pockets and sucking down juice boxes, the students greet each other with loose handshakes, plopping down in the blue plastic chairs, talking about their upcoming weekend.
The meeting begins with check-in. Virgil Moorehead, one of the founders of the group and a psychology intern with the Wright Institute in Berkeley, asks each student to answer two questions: How are you feeling and what is one thing you’re looking forward to?
Most of the young men are “good,” a testament to the communicative way of high school boys to describe their emotions.
“There’s a consistency with check-in,” Moorehead said. “Often there’s not a lot of consistency in their lives.”
A lack of consistency was just one of the things Moorehead and Dean Jones, the group’s other founder and Y-Team mental health program staff member, learned about the young men at Kennedy High School when they founded the group in 2010.
Jones said the program was founded because there was a need for a forum where young men could openly talk about their high school experiences.
But what sets the group apart from the various other programs that operate in the district is that Jones and Moorehead didn’t come in with a predetermined curriculum — they asked the young men what they needed.
The results speak for themselves.
Fifty percent of the young men were on probation when they started Jones said.
All of them met their conditions.
All of young men who were seniors last year got their high school diploma and one third of them went on to college.
“The way we did that,” he said, speaking in a calm and measured way, “we opened it up.”
The young men who participate choose the topics they discuss and they run the gamut: Fatherhood, community violence, success, relationships, trust, support networks, careers, sex, trauma, poverty versus ignorance.
The quote on the whiteboard reads:
“What we know is so little what we presume is so much.”
“What does that mean?” Moorehead asks the group.
They rattle off various summaries.
On to the second agenda item on the list, Jones asks the young men, “I know there’s a ton of stuff going on. What are the distractions?”
“Principal Johnson,” one student shouts out. He is immediately backed up by the voices of his classmates.
They don’t like the rules: No hats, no hoodies, no cell phones at lunch.
Moorehead and Jones let the boys go on for a while, venting and voicing their concerns.
He cuts them off.
“The impact of it is a loss of focus here in the group, classroom and field,” he says. “I’m asking you young brothers to set that aside because you’ve still got your goals. You want to graduate, go to college, get a job.”
Since joining the Kennedy Young Men’s Group, senior Lavontae Hill said he has pretty much achieved the goal he set for himself — get a 4.0.
Hill heard about the group through one of his friends. One day he heard the group was going on a field trip to Fuddruckers and Hill asked Jones if he could come.
“He said, “Sure, just start coming to the group on Fridays,’” Hill said.
And so he did and he’s brought some of his friends into the group as well.
“Through the group I’ve learned that there are things to do outside of school that are positive,” he said. “It keeps you off the streets.”
Winning the trust of the young men was a challenge at first, but over time Moorehead said they’ve seen a paradigm shift.
For the first six months, he said, the young men weren’t eager to trust them. Through field trips, specifically a trip to a UFC fight in San Jose, the boys began to not only trust one another, but also trust their advisers.
“It’s not that complex,” Moorehead said. “We’re just getting to know them. Really when it started it was about creating a community.”
Jones said when the group began one of the first things they did was to look at the reasons why their environment is the way it is.
“We looked at the systems in place that are perpetuating the status quo,” he said. “We had to embed that they may not be the reason they’re failing: ‘It’s not me, it’s how I’m being taught.’”
Jones said with three years under their belt, he hopes to move the group forward, outside of their high school environment into the real word and onto college campuses.
“We want to teach them how to manage their own existence,” he said. “Our goal is to increase their expectations for themselves.”