The half-dozen teenage boys in a classroom at John O’Connell High School were looking forward to their trip to Yosemite National Park. For most it would be their first time in the wilderness, so they were unsure what to expect.
Would it be cold? What’s it like to sleep in a tent? Would there be bears?
“I’m interested in getting a new environmental experience,” said Clay Cael, a soft-spoken ninth-grader who said he had never seen snow.
Given the weather of late, Cael might be disappointed in his desire to “hit somebody with a snowball.” But the San Francisco Achievers Program, the youth development nonprofit that was organizing the five-day expedition that started Monday, hoped the Yosemite experience would have a deeper impact.
“Our philosophy of the program is to expose them to things they might otherwise not be exposed to, and hopefully get them wanting to keep having new experiences, because that’s how you learn,” said Myra Quadros, the program’s director.
This is the second year for the Yosemite expedition, run in conjunction with NatureBridge, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that brings student groups to national parks for environmental science lessons and team-building exercises.
“For every kid, it’s a different experience, but it’s a really powerful one,” said NatureBridge board Chairman Stephen Lockhart.
The Achievers Program, which also operates at San Francisco’s Wallenberg High School, is geared toward black boys. The four-year program of mentoring, field trips and special classes aims to get these boys on track to graduate from high school and attend college.
“If you look at any data and statistics, they’re the ones dropping out of high school,” Quadros said.
Naje’e Brown, an 11th-grade science enthusiast who hoped to model his career after that of Steve Jobs, went on the Yosemite trip last year. He agreed that black teens such as himself needed extra support.
“I feel like African-American males really do need help,” Brown said. “We have a very low level of effectiveness. We have a high rate of killing each other and a low rate of keeping a job.”
Some of that might be due to the pressure of living in The City, Brown said.
“If you’re black, you have to scowl, you have to have your pants low,” he explained. “If you don’t conform to the stereotype, you’re ridiculed.”
But that doesn’t happen at Yosemite, Brown said.
“I think the environment affects people’s mind-set,” he said. “Yosemite is a really beautiful place, and once you go there you’ll always have it in your heart.”