It looked like a commencement exercise, the rows of black male teens in neckties or sweater vests and neatly creased slacks.
One by one they rose as Project BEST scholarship committee chairwoman Fuschsia Ward called out their names, grouped by school, and announced where they had been accepted to college. Then she handed them checks as beaming parents cheered.
It's been more than two decades since the founding of Project BEST, which stands for Black Excellence in Scholarship and Teaching. The program was founded in response to a series of articles in this newspaper that listed alarming statistics about young black males.
The dropout rate for black students in general was 40 percent higher than for the Kern High School District as a whole, and the rate of black males quitting school was 70 percent higher than for black females.
"Something had to be done," said Chris Dutton, Project BEST executive director and site administrator for the Kern High School District's Tierra Del Sol Continuation High School. "You can't have information like that and not do anything about it. That would be immoral."
Educators and community leaders gathered to brainstorm ways to combat the problem. Gayle Batey, a local real estate agent, led the charge, donating $50,000 in seed money for a pilot program at Bakersfield, South and West high schools.
Project BEST would foster academic success through tutoring, counseling, mentoring and assistance with college and scholarship applications, as well as visits to college campuses.
And to make sure financial barriers didn't hold promising students back from higher education, there would be scholarships. Chevron kicked in some money the first year, later joined by other businesses large and small and a parade of individual donors.
On Thursday, as the program presented roughly $160,000 in scholarships of various amounts to about 60 students, Project BEST paused for a moment to reflect.
Last year, the KHSD dropout rate was 14.5 percent overall, down from 29.3 percent in 1994, said KHSD Superintendent Don Carter.
The dropout rate for black students was 17.6 percent, only 18 percent above the district rate compared with 40 percent in 1994, he said.