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USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative expands to East LA

north hagerby Eddie North-Hager
An NAI medal was handed to scholars at their graduation gala in May. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)
An NAI medal was handed to scholars at their graduation gala in May. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

For the first time in its history, the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative will expand beyond South Los Angeles to include more than 100 sixth-graders near the university’s Health Sciences Campus (HSC) in East Los Angeles.

Working with Los Angeles Unified School District students around the University Park Campus, USC has pioneered a system that over the past 15 years graduates 99 percent of its students, with 83 percent enrolling as freshmen in four-year colleges.

“The USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative reflects USC’s long-standing commitment to our surrounding neighborhoods,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “As a community, we stand by these students over the years and become partners in their education and growth. Because of this program, hundreds of students have attended outstanding colleges throughout the country.”

All 66 sixth-graders at Murchison Elementary School will participate, and another 35 will join the program from nearby El Sereno Elementary. The students will attend Saturday NAI classes, tutoring and other workshops at HSC in Boyle Heights. Eventually the program will ramp up to serve about 600 students from sixth through 12th grade.

“We know what we do works and in Boyle Heights, like in South LA, there is a critical need for college access programs,” said Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of USC Educational Partnerships, who oversees NAI. “These families have a great desire for their children to go to college and are hungry for people who believe in them.”

Initial funding to launch the expansion comes from the Gilbert Foundation, with the majority of the costs paid for by USC.

NAI is a seven-year enrichment program that prepares low-income, minority students living in the neighborhoods surrounding USC campuses for success at a college or university. The students are not chosen because of their prior academic success but because of their commitment to succeed.

To date, 745 South LA students have graduated from the NAI program and gone to college.

Upon entering NAI, the sixth-graders and their parents pledge to attend full-day classes on most Saturdays at USC until high school graduation as well as intensive math and English classes before and after school.

Nearly every one of these students is the first in his or her families to attend college. Upon graduation, nearly 100 percent qualify for Pell Grants, which is awarded to low-income undergraduate students, Thomas-Barrios said.

Students who are accepted to USC are rewarded with a 4.5-year full-tuition scholarship. NAI graduates also have gone on to attend Yale University, Brown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University and Morehouse College, among many other institutions.

The parents of NAI students also are required to attend daylong workshops and training on issues, such as financial literacy, college retention and nutrition.

Arnulfo and Jesus Moran, along with their parents, who work at a car wash and as a housekeeper, made a commitment to participate in the NAI program. Today, the twins are sophomores at Harvard University and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Lizette Zarate graduated from the Foshay Learning Center as part of the NAI in 1998 and was admitted to USC, where she earned her degree in English. She went on to get her master’s and doctorate in education from Loyola Marymount University, doing her dissertation on the NAI program. That academic effort led to her eventual hire as the NAI curriculum and instruction specialist.

“I am excited about the expansion of NAI because I know firsthand the transformative experience that NAI is for its participants,” Zarate said. “As a graduate of the program, I am forever thankful for the educational opportunities that NAI offered me — they not only prepared me for college, but they paid for my education and made sure I persisted. It is wonderful to know that more students will have access to the same opportunities I had via NAI.”

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