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Inner-City Students Get an Academic Lift

Century-LIFT graduate Elda Pech, with her 13-year-old brother, Albert, who is enrolled in the program now. Pech, a new teacher who is working on a master’s degree, is the first product of an experiment designed to qualify Los Angeles inner-city students for admission to colleges and universities.

With the end of another school year, some college seniors may be scratching their heads about their futures, but Elda Pech knows where she’s going.

Having worked this year as both a student teacher and teacher’s assistant, the graduate of USC’s School of Education has just been hired as a first-grade teacher at Los Angeles’ Magnolia Avenue Elementary School. She plans to juggle her job while embarking on a master’s degree in education at USC this fall.

“She has a great future in teaching,” said Magnolia Principal Brenda Stepps, who hired Pech.

But Pech’s future hasn’t always looked so bright, admits the daughter of a carpenter and housewife who immigrated 20 years ago from Mexico.

“Ten years ago, I would never have imagined that I’d be at USC,” she said. “We just didn’t have the resources.”

Pech is the first product of a bold experiment designed to qualify Los Angeles inner-city students for admission to colleges and universities, especially USC.

In her senior year of high school, Pech’s family moved into a newly constructed low-income housing complex in South-Central Los Angeles. In collaboration with USC, the developer of Academy Hall had just launched “Eexcel,” which promised to provide tutoring and a shot at college for the complex’s school-aged residents.

“They told us that if we had the grades and determination, we would be able to attend USC free of charge, and I did,” said Pech, the program’s first graduate.

NOW CALLED Century-Learning Initiatives for Today (LIFT), the project has recently undergone a dramatic overhaul and spread to four more affordable housing complexes in South-Central Los Angeles. A sixth housing complex with a built-in college preparatory program is scheduled to come on-line this fall, bringing the total number of students eligible for the program as high as 1,500.

But the promise is basically the same for 75 or so fourth- through 11th-graders who are currently participating: Study hard and get accepted to USC with no special treatment, and the university will cover your tuition through governmental and institutional grants.

To help students achieve this goal, Century-LIFT employs 27 tutors, including teaching assistants with the Los Angeles Unified School District and college students from various Los Angeles colleges and universities, USC among them.

Each complex has a study hall equipped with tables, chairs, computers and reference books. During the school year, supervised tutorials are conducted in the study hall from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Before moving into the apartments, residents sign a lease that requires their children to attend at least 80 percent of these sessions. Parents must also agree to supervise at least one field trip a year and attend at least one parental workshop a month. The workshops, which follow the Los Angeles Unified School District’s “Healthy Start” curriculum, refine parenting skills and skills to support academic excellence at home.

“Overwhelmingly we meet with support,” said Cynthia Amos, the program’s administrator and a teacher at Foshay Learning Center. Foshay, a K-12 campus that has been named a California Distinguished School, educates most of the Century-LIFT students.

“The students are better test-takers, and they’re more attentive,” continued Amos, who tracks their progress at school. “We’ve had 11 kids – four from one building – on the honor roll at school.”

The housing projects are funded by Century Housing Corp., a nonprofit organization that has disbursed $150 million for low-income housing since the construction of Los Angeles’ Century Freeway. Government agencies are required to replace any low-income housing lost as a result of the freeway construction.

By making inner-city students more competitive as college applicants, “Century-LIFT gets at the problem that affirmative action is meant to solve in a way that avoids charges of favoritism,” said Robert Norris, the executive vice president of Century Housing Corp.

Other partners in the project include Danberg Development, the developer and owner of five of the six Century-LIFT housing projects; Foshay Learning Center; and USC’s School of Education and office of undergraduate aid and admissions. Guilbert Hentschke, dean of the School of Education, sits on Century-LIFT’s board of directors along with Howard Lappin, a School of Education doctoral candidate and Foshay’s principal.

“USC is helping to guide the project instead of provide direct service,” Hentschke said.

For USC, Century-LIFT is part of an ongoing commitment to help lift up the neighborhoods surrounding both its medical and University Park campuses.

“We’re trying to find ways to make a difference, to supplement classroom experience, to encourage students to take advantage of what’s available in Los Angeles,” said Cathie Thomas, an associate dean of admissions and financial aid and director of financial aid. “This is all about hope.”

Dan Hunter, owner and operator of Danberg, said he is motivated largely by altruism.

“For me, it’s never been about putting up housing and leaving,” he said. “I want to enhance the neighborhood and improve lives around USC and in South-Central.”

But the veteran developer admits that devoting an estimated $50 a month per unit to tutoring and other educational support expenses makes good business sense.

“Turnover in affordable housing usually runs 30 percent to 40 percent annually,” he said of the apartments that rent for between $525 and $725. “In these buildings, it’s down to 10 percent to 15 percent. Any time you offer enrichment, tenants are less likely to leave. There’s also less vandalism.”

DESPITE SUCH compelling advantages, the program almost died. Accounts vary on whether blame lay with the original developer, complex management, volunteer tutors or parents who lacked a full commitment to the project. But it was clear within a year of Eexcel’s launch that it was not going to deliver as promised. Foshay, USC and Hunter decided last spring to install a new, improved model in Pech’s Academy Hall.

Danberg has since established Century-LIFT in four other low-income housing complexes: Morehouse Apartments at 1750 Martin Luther King Blvd.; Casa Rita Apartments, 6508 Rita Ave.; Athens Glen Apartments, 11515 S. Budlong Ave.; and Parkside Apartments, 400 W. 9th St. Parkside has tenants, but its educational component is not scheduled to begin until September.

Century Housing Corp. has established Century-LIFT at WestPark Apartments at 1600 West Blvd.; Hyde Park Manor, 300 Hyde Park Blvd.; and Hawthorne Terrace, Kornblum Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard. The Hyde Park project is scheduled to begin in June, while the Hawthore Terrace project is scheduled to begin in July.

“We came back and took a look at what we’d done wrong, and we dug in to get it right,” said Lappin, who earlier this year was named California’s Principal of the Year. “That’s to everybody’s credit, especially the developer’s.”

In devising Century-LIFT, organizers took cues from USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative, a 7-year-old program that brings average but motivated students to campus from USC’s surrounding neighborhood for six years of intensive tutoring, counseling and college preparatory instruction. As with Century-LIFT, NAI graduates who are accepted to USC have their tuition covered by university and government grants.

LIKE NAI SCHOLARS, the Century-LIFT participants undergo testing at USC to pinpoint their academic weaknesses. A portion of each Century-LIFT tutorial targets these weaknesses. Students also polish their reading and critical analysis skills as well as complete each day’s homework.

“Parents say they wouldn’t be able to afford this kind of tutoring,” said Amos, a former NAI teacher.

Because Pech was a senior when her family moved into the project, she didn’t have the benefit of much of LIFT’s tutoring and other academic support services. But not so her 13-year-old brother and the other students at Academy Hall.

” He’s very interested in the sciences,” she said. “He’s dreaming of going to USC.”

Inner-City Students Get an Academic Lift

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