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Santa Monica High School students cross Pico Boulevard on Tuesday after their first day back on campus following summer vacation. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

SAMOHI — District officials inked a deal with the Village Nation organization last week to bring its program to empower African-American youth to Santa Monica High School.

The program forges tighter bonds between teachers on campus and their African-American students in an attempt to increase academic and personal support to improve test scores and overall well-being.

“We hope that it will be an additional tool in helping us engage and motivate students to do and be their very best,” said Peggy Harris, director of curriculum and instruction at the district.

The move is part of an ongoing effort to improve the racial climate on campus in the wake of an incident in May 2011 in which an African-American wrestler was allegedly chained to a locker.

That sparked community outrage, which resulted in a comprehensive look at what the district was doing to teach students about race, improve race relations on campus and support students of color who traditionally fall behind white and Asian students in measures of academic performance.

Village Nation sticks to the traditional notion that “it takes a village to raise a child.”

The program trains teachers and other adults to be mentors, called “elders,” to the students, and involves African-American students in special assemblies to reinforce positive messages about themselves and their futures.

Representatives of Village Nation came to the school to help craft a program especially for Samohi so that it would work with efforts that have already been put in place since the Board of Education directed staff to take steps in June 2011.

Those efforts include a course in ethnic studies, which officials hope will roll out for the 2013-14 school year.

“Listening to them and to us, it felt like a good complementary program where they focus on students and elders supporting those students, and we’ll work on the programming pieces,” said Renee Semik, the I House principal at Samohi and point-person on the curriculum changes.

Fluke Fluker, a co-founder of the Village Nation program, wrote that he was excited to get the program going in Santa Monica.

“At this point, we are very … optimistic about administrator buy-in at both Santa Monica High School, the school district and also community support,” wrote Fluker in an e-mail. “At the same time, we greatly respect and value the opportunity for teacher buy-in, which won’t be (displayed) until we get a chance to meet with the wonderful staff at Samohi.”

Staff at the school and with Village Nation have set up four-day training workshops for teachers and the first assembly for students.

The program will be able to accommodate all of the African-American students that want to join, Semik said.

“I think the capacity is the sky’s the limit,” Semik said. “It may start small and grow, or it may start big and we’ll maintain it.”

Funding remains a problem.

The district has put forward $10,000 for the first year of the program, but that’s $30,000 short. Volunteers are working on grant proposals to help cover the remaining cost, Harris said.

The Village Nation program came up in a series of meetings with the community and had a great deal of support from parents.

That initial meeting in October was the first time that Semik had been introduced to Village Nation as well.

The amount of community commitment to the program was important, Semik said.

“I think the fact that it was brought by the parents and community means everybody is a very equal partner and has a stake in truly helping to work on the climate and condition as well as raising achievement for black students and all students, too,” Semik said.

Now it comes down to raising money.

ashley@smdp.com

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