Urban Scholars

The Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) identifies all urban youth as capable of academic success, critical consciousness, and increased well-being. SJLI supports the personal and academic development of youth through a series of programs, broadly known as Urban Scholars, which are integrated into a school’s academic course calendar. 

As Urban Scholars, youth build knowledge of self for personal and social transformation. Upon completion, youth are confident enough to demonstrate knowledge of their ancestors, community, race, and the social condition. Further, youth leave Urban Scholars programing prepared to transform society—to create a more just and humane world.   


Types of Urban Scholars

Urban Scholars operates four population-targeted curricula to urban youth:

Urban Scholars: Black Male Youth Academy 
The first Urban Scholars program, the BMYA was piloted in 2006. It supports a cohort of black males in grades 9-12. Students explore topics such as black male identity, African American history, and the black diaspora.

Urban Scholars: BLOOM, Black Male Youth Academy 
BLOOM-BMYA is a partnership between the California Community Foundations’ BLOOM Initiative and SJLI’s Black Male Youth Academy. Participants of this dynamic program are black males, age 14-18, who are currently, or have previously been involved with the Los Angeles County probation system.

Urban Scholars: Compadres 
Launched in 2012, this program supports a cohort of Latino males in grades 9-12. Students explore topics such as Latino masculinity, Mesoamerican cultures, and Latino-American history.

Urban Scholars: Junior 
Comprised of young boys of color from varied ethnic backgrounds, this program condenses and implements the Urban Scholars curriculum for middle school students in grades 6-8.

Urban Scholars: Allies 
The Allies program is offered as a hybrid of the Black Male Youth Academy and the Compadres curriculum for a mixed group of high school males of color.


The Need

According to numerous studies, male youth of color face the highest imprisonment, recidivism, youth victimization, and death rates in the country (Mauler & Huling, 1996; Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, Hamby, 2005).

In 2010, a 50-state report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education revealed that only 47 percent of black male students graduated high school, much less made it on to college, nationwide. And, nearly one in four young black male dropouts are incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized on an average day.

Although the Latino dropout rate has been on the decline, it is still the highest of any minority group, and Latino youth are less likely to attend a major college or four-year university compared to their counterparts (Fry & Taylor, 2013).

Despite their socio-economic disadvantages, as a group, students of color begin school with test scores that are comparable to the scores of their white counterparts. However, by the sixth grade, students of color fall behind by two full grade levels. In the college context, the trend endures. Studies have shown that 70 percent of students of color who enroll in four-year universities drop out at some point, as compared with 45 percent of white students (Steele, 1992; Fry, 2002; Barton, 2003; Harvey, 2003; Liu, 2011).

The Response

When adopted at a school site, Urban Scholars is built into the master academic calendar. Each course engages students in critical discussions and teaches college level research:

  • Theory Evaluation—Assess problems in their community or school
  • Research—Conduct surveys and seek out interviews from peers, community members, civic leaders, and school staff
  • Data Collection—Documentary filmmaking
  • Draw Conclusions—Create an action plan
  • Communicate Results—Present findings

Through this process, students learn how to become better writers, gain skills as documentary filmmakers, and engage in academic activities at the college level. Each student identifies, plans, and executes a project within their community that is manageable and can be solved within the school year. This type of engagement brings the academic experience to life. SJLI also provides Urban Scholars with academic support such as tutoring, homework assistance, academic counseling, and college preparatory education.

The Curriculum

Urban Scholars teaches units in:

  • Cultural Empowerment
  • Identity Development
  • Life Skills Training
  • Civic Engagement
  • College Preparation
  • Becoming Youth Researchers

Urban Scholars covers topics such as:

  • Understanding Manhood
  • Aspiration Assessment/Development
  • Colleges, Jobs and Training
  • Understanding History, Emancipation, and Civil Rights
  • Preparation and Practice Testing for the SAT, ACT, and CAHSEE/CST
  • Personal Identity
  • Researching Family
  • Civic Engagement
Success and Impact
  • Urban Scholars is currently on the ground in seven schools—within three different districts—which is more than double and triple, respectively, of the 2012-13 school year
  • There is a 95 percent graduation rate and an 85 percent college attendance rate for every student who completes an Urban Scholars program
  • Following completion of Urban Scholars, more than 80 students have sought post secondary education
  • The Urban Scholars Goals Include:
    • Help youth gain and maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA each year
    • Help youth achieve a proficient score (or higher) on the California Standards Test (CST)
    • Help youth become a community of leaders
    • Help youth develop “critical consciousness”
    • Help youth become change agents in their community