Doug Miller, a 17-year-old senior at Irvine High School, was listening to a recent class discussion about poetry when the conversation turned to rhythm and rap.
"The teacher asked if anyone knew about rap music, and everyone turned and looked at me," said Miller, the only African American in the class. "But I don't know anything more about rap than they do. Because I'm black, [people assume] I'm different."
Feelings of being isolated aren't unusual for black youths growing up in Orange County, a predominately white and Latino area. That's why Miller joined Passport to the Future, 100 Black Men of Orange County Inc.'s pioneering program for boys.
The goal is to link black high school students in Orange County with doctors, lawyers, educators, police officers and other professionals.
About half the program's 40 students come from single-parent homes, many without fathers in their lives. For them, Passport can give a sense of family and connectedness. Male mentors offer guidance and take an interest in students' grades, career goals and their senses of identity.
"We don't want to replace the parents," said Ron Taylor, a 100 Black Men board member who is director of leasing for the Irvine Co. in Newport Beach.
"We want . . . kids to see a bright and promising future for themselves. . . . To show them you don't have to be an athlete or an entertainer to be a success."
So it is that every other weekend from October through May, about 10 volunteers from 100 Black Men meet with the boys at Irvine High School to discuss leadership skills, networking college preparation and black history.
On a recent sunny Saturday, as others swam laps in a nearby pool or played soccer, Passport kids met inside portable classrooms.
Divided up by grade, members of each class formed a circle and recited a poem about black unity. Sophomores watched a film about a 19th century slave ship rebellion. Juniors talked team building with a Xerox executive.
"This program has taught me you've got to stay in school to be successful, and you've got to know the difference between right and wrong," said Anthony Coleman, a 16-year-old sophomore at Irvine's Woodbridge High.
Taylor, Anthony's mentor, nodded his approval: "Anthony epitomizes this program. These are young men trying to make good on their life."
Seated among the dozen or so seniors who will be the first to graduate from the 4-year-old program, Passport leader Kevin Franklin asked what students would change.
"More black people in the classroom," one said. "Sometimes in school I feel like an outcast."
"At home, I'm not around black positive role models," another student added.
What's needed, they told him, is more--more contact with black mentors, more teaching about how to succeed in business, and more internships to get job experience.
Most seniors said they've improved their grades and are motivated to apply to college.
"It's my reality check," said Corey Moore, 18, a senior at Trabuco Hills High School and a Rancho Santa Margarita resident who joined Passport in his freshman year. "I had no direction. I was going to school to play basketball. They taught me that there's more to school than that. They got me ready for college."
Moore learned new study habits and raised his grade point average from a C or less in his freshman year to a solid 3.0. He also enrolled in an SAT workshop and a three-week college orientation last summer at a Virginia military institute. He's applying to Pepperdine University and Morehouse College in Atlanta.
It has helped him make personal gains, too.
"It's taught me to respect my mother and to be a role model to my little brother," he said.
On the advice from his mentors, Doug Miller has applied to four colleges, including his "dream school"--USC--where he hopes to major in architecture.
Marsha Whitehead of Irvine, a single mom whose 17-year-old son, Christopher Smith, has attended Passport since his freshman year, said it has boosted her son's grades to a solid B average and sparked his desire to attend a community college.
"It's given him a sense of who he is and a sense of pride in being a black man," said the visual coordinator for Wet Seal Inc. in Foothill Ranch. "That's hard growing up in a white area."
The Orange County group, with 45 members, is affiliated with 100 Black Men of America, a national organization dedicated to improving the educational, social and economic status of African Americans. Each of its 80 chapters, including one in Los Angeles, has some type of tutoring or mentoring program. Only the Orange County chapter has a four-year program with a curriculum aimed at academic achievement and development of the whole person.
"Our program is unique because it has four levels, and it focuses on African-centered values," said Thomas Parham, assistant vice chancellor for counseling and health services at UC Irvine.
Parham, former education chairman of the chapter, conceived and developed Passport to the Future in 1993. Most of the kids come from working-class families.