White House official honors Oakland students' achievements

An official from the White House came to the Bay Area Monday night to honor a group of students from the Oakland Unified School District.

The 15th Annual African American Honor Roll ceremony recognized more than 1,000 Oakland students, from eighth graders through high school seniors all with a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

"It feels amazing just to see the progress the program has made and us being a part of it," said Willie Scott, III, an Oakland High School senior, who says he raised his GPA from 3.0 to 3.5 while playing three sports,, thanks to getting a mentor from the district's program for African American males.

District staff say they intend to expand their programs next year.

"We're actually launching an initiative in our Oakland Unified School program focusing on the needs African American girls," said Chris Chatmon, the newly appointed Deputy Chief of the OUSD Office of Equity.

For parents it's a time to feel proud.

"This is her very first 3.0. This is her very first honor roll," said Latoya Lewis who attended the ceremony with her daughter Saryna Fields, a senior at Dewey High School.

"I'm gonna cry, I'm gonna cry yeah," said Kimberley Butler, mother of eighth grade honor roll student  "He's always been a good kid. He's always kept a 3.0 and up so I'm just very proud of him and I'm looking forward to the future."

Angelica Williams attended to see her two sons honored, Zymariae Smith who attends Claremont and Jackie Walker who attends Skyline.

"I feel blessed because they included them. They're autistic, they're non-verbal, but they included them in the ceremony and I'm blessed," Williams said.

For students a chance to celebrate their dreams and their teachers.

"I would like become a really good artist and an animator one day," said Jamaru Burton, a freshman from Skyline High School.

"We love this organization for making the students feel recognized for their hard work and it's just a beautiful thing and it's positive every year,' said Jamaru's father Christopher Spencer.

The honor roll program was co-founded by Oscar Wright, 92, a World War II veteran and one of eleven children of Mississippi sharecroppers, who struggled through school but graduated from college.

"It's really exciting for me to be here. What we've gone through to make it this far, you know I'm really happy about what's taking place here," Wright said.

He said at times, he had to reach into his own pocket to make sure the honor roll program continued.

Now, it's being recognized all the way to the White House.

The keynote speaker for the event came from the Obama administration.

David Johns serves as director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. He had some advice for the Oakland students.

"I promise each and every one of you, that there is one thing that only you can do. And if it doesn't get done, it's because you aren't living in your purpose," Johns said, encouraging them to take care of themselves and each other as they pursue their dreams, and not waste time worrying about those who don't believe in their success.

Oakland has pledged to launch a program in 2016-2017 to provide every kindergartner in the district with a college fund by the year 2020. So far, they have raised $20 million of the estimated $39 million needed to fund the program for the next 4-5 years.

The goal is to increase high school graduation rates from its current 60 percent and also increase the number of students who go on to graduate from college.