KINGSTON – Since 2014, Kingston High School (KHS) has been committed to closing opportunity gaps for students who are young men of color (YMOC). Through a partnership with the Brothers@ organization and Bard College, the Brothers at Bard (BAB) program at KHS has helped empower YMOC to take charge of their educations and their futures.
According to Angela Armstrong, Kingstson’s Director of Recruitment, Retention, and Equity who serves as staff liaison to the BAB program, the results at KHS have been remarkable.
Since the first graduating class in 2015, BAB has achieved an overall graduation rate of over 90% among students who were fully engaged in the program.
“Brothers at Bard” was launched in the spring of 2014 by two young men of color, Bard students Dariel Vasquez and Harry Johnson. After struggling to find their places at a predominantly white institution, they created a support group for students like themselves. It was so successful that after one semester, they reached out to the Boys and Girls Club and to KHS for assistance in expanding their initiative.
Starting with once-a-week afterschool mentoring and youth-development sessions, BAB expanded its offerings at KHS to provide weekly support throughout the school day and afterschool programming two to three times a week. The Bard student-mentors, who receive extensive training, work with their mentees to foster academic persistence as well as positive identity and character development. Each year, 35 to 50 Kingston students in Grades 9 through 12 are served by BAB.
“We are so proud of the program,” said Armstrong. “These students are having experiences they would not normally have, and are creating bonds and connections to each other that last a lifetime.”
BAB’s 9th-period programming at KHS includes “grind-time” (academic support sessions) and “brotherhood circles” (where discussion-based workshops and group “check-ins” focus on social-emotional learning and healing). Every Thursday, students reflect on the challenges they have experienced, strategizing solutions and setting goals.
“Having these open and honest discussions validates the students’ experiences and ignites their potential,” said Gerineldo “G” Solano Rojas, Brothers@’s Program Manager for High School Initiatives, who mentors students at KHS twice a week. “Creating a safe space for students to open up and engage in critical discussions about their lived experiences is the heart of the program.” Discussion topics include race, class, conflict resolution, positive/healthy masculinity, and how to navigate different social settings.
In addition, mentees participate in off-campus outings. As part of their summer academy, they have taken trips to Washington, D.C., where they visited colleges and museums and engaged with successful men of color in different career fields. They have also participated in weekend bonding retreats.
The program also offers workforce development opportunities through Brothers@’s partnership with Ramapo for Children—an organization that operates a camp that serves children who face learning difficulties and often have special needs. BAB coordinates paid internships and transportation for mentees to work at Ramapo, and offers the chance to earn college credits through on-site development courses.
“We want to give students as many options as possible,” Solano Rojas said. “We teach them skills to prepare for life, which means to always have a plan, and always have a backup plan.”
KHS senior Damien Figueroa, who has been participating in BAB since his freshman year, especially enjoys the brotherhood circles. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere where we can openly talk about our problems, but also joke around and have fun,” he said.
The BAB program has helped Figueroa with both career and college preparation. It was under the guidance of BAB that Figueroa secured his first job as a counselor in training at Ramapo for Children, where he also earned college credits.
As a trusted advisor to Brothers@ and its co-founders, Armstrong continues to guide and support their work in Kingston. Her vision for the near future is that—with the right resources and funding—the organization will be able to reach more students and to create employment pathways for its Kingston alumni. Ultimately, she hopes, the program will develop a “brotherhood-bridge-program” for YMOC in middle school, which would allow Grade 7 and Grade 8 students to receive support, mentoring and guidance before they enter high school.