Three years ago, Oscar Menjivar, 35, a former technology consultant, was working for the Los Angeles Unified School district (LAUSD) to integrate technology into classrooms when he noticed an upsetting trend.
After visiting an 8th grade classroom, he saw that a teacher had posted grades for a recent paper. Out of 16 papers, only two received a C and they belonged to male students.
“I went to the detention rooms and 90-95 percent of the kids there were young men,” Menjivar said.
Disturbed by this discovery, Menjivar researched dropout and incarceration rates. He found statistics to validate his observations — male students were falling behind.
According to the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, boys receive 70 percent of D and F grades. Sixty percent of high school dropouts are males.
In response, Menjivar founded URBAN TxT, a nonprofit organization to help male teens from South Los Angeles develop leadership and technology skills.
He employs a team of five to staff a 15-week summer academy where the boys learn computer programming and web development. Students are divided into teams where they compete against each other to create a website by the end of the summer.
To put their leadership skills to work, the boys pitch their projects to investors, who give them feedback. The winning team receives $500 to launch their creation and the top three winning teams take a trip to visit Google and Facebook’s headquarters along with Stanford University.
Last year’s winning team developed a website encouraging young people to become more politically active.
Jesus Vargas., 17, a rising senior at USC MAST, said the skills he learned at URBAN TxT gave him the confidence to run for, and win, the position of senior class president.
Admission into the program is free. Menjivar said startup funds came largely out of his pocket. He put $35,000 toward his business and received a separate donation from Edison for $10,000. However, former students, whom he expects to succeed in technological professions, can expect a phone call from him soliciting a donation for the next generation of “TxTers.”
The program is not limited to the summer. TxT alumni meet at USC on Saturdays to hear guest speakers and participate in workshops. At the last meeting, the boys worked on developing their own iPhone apps.
URBAN TxTers are introduced to a creed that encourages personal and academic development. Menjivar said he drew from various muses like Dale Carnegie and Sun Tzu to create his own philosophy.
According to Menjivar, none of the summer academy participants have dropped out of the program, and all of the alumni have gone on to four-year institutions. He said that 75 percent of the graduates became engineering majors.
The program, now in its third year, continues to grow as more URBAN TxT alumni are telling their friends about the academy.
Menjivar received over 120 applications for 30 positions this year.
He reaches out to potential applicants through partner organizations such as the Watts Boys & Girls Club. While he is considering adding girls to the program, Menjivar said he wants to focus on closing the male achievement gap and push boys from South L.A. to a place where they can compete against students from outside the state.
“When I was doing consulting, I was invited to speak in a middle-school at Watts. I had 60 kids in front of me and when I asked who knew what web development was, only five of them raised their hands,” Menjivar said.
“It made me sad because I used to be one of those kids, from the poorest neighborhoods. I come back 15 years later and the same kids are still struggling. If something is not done about this, they won’t be able to compete globally or locally.”