Teacher Keisch Wilson greets "Team" members Terrill Jones,… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
When Keymarian Washington was in eighth grade, he was shot at while hanging out with gang members on a Pasadena street. By Bruce Palmore's sophomore year, his father feared that his son's poor grades and lack of motivation meant he would never finish high school, much less make it to college. Tevin and Terrill Jones grew up in a South Los Angeles neighborhood they said was dominated by gangs, violence and negativity.
The four young men met up at Blair International Baccalaureate School in Pasadena, where they graduated with high enough grades to attend a four-year university. Now, the four are being hailed as role models, particularly for other young African American male students.
Assistant Principal Mark Greene said the four friends, who have been dubbed "The Team," are an inspiration for Blair students.
"They see the alumni who are just like them, friends from the same neighborhood, and that gives them confidence," he said. "They know they can do it."
Their story wasn't always so optimistic. During high school, Palmore was drifting. His father, also named Bruce Palmore, an accountant who had been a member of Phi Beta Sigma in college, worried that his son was hanging out with the wrong crowd. He also worried that among African American teenagers, particularly males, there was not enough value placed on education. College attendance rates for black men lag behind rates for most other groups.
Hoping to inspire him, the father took the teen to a fraternity event. The young man was intrigued by a step show, a synchronized, percussive dance traditionally performed by African American sororities and fraternities, and decided that he wanted to start a chapter of the group's program for kindergarten-through-12th-grade students, Sigma Beta.
He started the group at Blair, recruited members and made new friends. By his senior year, he was earning a 3.7 grade-point average.
"The first six months, I could see this whole attitude change," his father said. "By senior year, he was actually a completely different person. His inner spirit was completely different."
As the Sigma Betas attended college fairs, visited college campuses and did community service projects, their friendship grew into a tight brotherhood. Palmore, the Jones brothers and Washington made a pledge: Not only would they graduate from high school and go to college, they would go together, to keep supporting one another. Palmore and the twins graduated from Blair in 2009; Washington graduated in 2008 and completed a year of community college.
"We're just going to carry each other through college, no matter how hard it's going to get," said Palmore, a computer-science major. "There are going to be obstacles. We're going to face them together."
The boys got help with the admissions and financial aid application process from mentors, including Foundation 44, a group created at Blair that aimed to get all 44 black seniors in the class of 2009 into a four-year university -- 38 made it -- and the nonprofit Smart Kids Pasadena.
The four friends settled on Langston University, a small, historically black college which offers majors that interested all four. The university is in a small town in Oklahoma, where Palmore, now 18, figured he and his friends could focus on their studies while staying out of trouble.
Moving to Langston, Okla., has been an adjustment -- the teenagers had never seen armadillos or deer before, and the weather was unlike the climate in which they were raised.
"When we first got there, there was lightening and thunder. That was scary," Palmore said. "The thunder was so strong it felt like an earthquake. . . . We didn't know what it was."
Washington added: "It's way different, nothing but land and cows and horses. No buildings, no mountains. You can see the stars more clearly."
The college freshmen have been completing "piles" of homework and trying to keep one another motivated.
"When one says, 'I don't want to do homework,' we say, 'We're not going anywhere until you do it," said Washington, a 19-year-old computer science major.
Their decision to attend Langston together created a ready-made support network for the boys, three of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
"The deepest fears were that we were leaving home, actually going and doing what a lot of kids we grew up around don't do," said Tevin Jones, 18, a biology major who wants to be a heart transplant surgeon. Jones and his twin brother were attending Blair on a permit, making a 45-minute commute each way from South L.A.
Terrill Jones, 18, said he went from having one brother to having three.
"It helped me a lot," said the business management major who wants to open a chain of restaurants in his hometown. "I have more people to rely on and to help out if they need help. I just love having them around."