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Neighborhood Kids Bound for USC, Thanks to College Prep Program

The first class of NAI “scholars” to be accepted to USC pose with their future mascot. Standing in the back are (from left to right) Cynthia Rios, Henry Servellon, Jessica Peraza, Alfredo Grajalez, Elizabeth Espinosa, David Carbajal, Gloria Campos, Fernando Barba, Juan Antonio Toledo and Johnny Chavarria. In front, they are Karen Mendoza, Elva Rojas, Aaron Gray, Gloria Tigolo and Angel Orellana. Not pictured but also accepted to USC from NAI are Janet Loera and Manuel Bojorquez.

Fernando Barba, who is graduating from a neighborhood high school with a 3.8 GPA, plans to pursue a pre-law course of studies next fall as the first member of his family to go to college.

“I don’t want to turn out like my brother and cousins,” said Barba, the youngest of five children of a housewife and mechanic who emigrated from Mexico. “I want to do something positive.”

Barba is one of 17 incoming freshmen to gain admission to the university thanks to USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), a unique program designed to qualify neighborhood children for admission to USC.

When these students were sixth-graders, NAI director James C. Fleming paid a visit to their elementary schools and made an offer they could not refuse: If they joined his free, Pre-College Enrichment Academy and stuck with it, a four-year scholarship to USC awaited them. To join the academy, they only had to be average students – so long as they were keenly motivated, he told them.

Fleming offered one caveat: His “scholars” would be held to the same standard as any other applicants for undergraduate admission to USC. No special allowances would be made for grades or test scores. But at least, he assured the students, they would not have to go it alone.

Fleming promised the benefit of a college preparatory curriculum on a par with that offered in the city’s toniest prep schools. They would receive regular group counseling to adjust to the stresses of rigorous studies and one-on-one therapy if needed. Furthermore, the helping hand would extend not only to the students but also their families.

Need a desk where your scholar can do his homework? How about money to replace a car part so you can get to work tomorrow? Or even help covering your rent for one more month until you find work? Fleming can’t remember turning down a single family’s reasonable request – even if it meant dipping into his own pocket. Anything, he said, “to reduce distractions” that keep his scholars from applying themselves to their studies.

“Most college programs are aimed at boosting minority representation once students are eligible to enroll in college,” Fleming said. “We want to ensure that neighborhood students are eligible to be accepted at USC.”

The deck was certainly stacked against Fleming. In 1990, the dropout rate at neighborhood schools exceeded 30 percent. On standardized tests, neighborhood students scored in the 30th percentile in reading and the 60th percentile in math.

But within two years, NAI’s scholars had soared to the 60th percentile in reading and the 70th percentile in math. They have since learned to take notes, write research papers and take college entrance examinations.

Always come to class prepared. Never leave a classroom in confusion. Learn to focus your attention immediately on a task. The scholars have heard these and other approaches to successful learning so many times that the watchwords are second nature.

Now six years later, NAI’s first graduating class – whose members all attended the same inner-city high school located less than a mile southwest of campus – represents this spring’s other USC commencement.

“These are kids who absolutely would not have made it to USC otherwise,” Fleming said.

When asked to imagine life without NAI, Barba responds without hesitation: “I’d’ve been shot a couple of times and been in jail,” he said.

Even Angel Orellana, a lifelong A student, doubts he would have made it into the university without the support of NAI, particularly in preparing for the SATs.

“I have one friend (not in the program) who has a 3.8 GPA, and she got rejected by USC because of her test scores,” said Orellana, the first NAI scholar to be accepted to USC. “It was very hard for her when I got accepted.”

The members of USC’s incoming freshman class are not the only success stories from NAI’s first graduating class.

“All of the students who stuck with NAI are going to college,” Fleming said. “Some will go to community colleges; others have been accepted into schools in the California State University system.”

Students who attend junior colleges can apply to USC as transfer students when they are sophomores, Fleming said. If admitted, they will receive full scholarships for the final three years of their undergraduate careers. Students who graduate from other, accredited four-year universities will be able to apply to USC professional or graduate schools. If admitted, they will receive two-year scholarships.

Many of the children will be the first in their families to enroll in a four-year college. In some cases, their parents never finished elementary school. Most have blue-collar jobs. Many do not speak English. But Fleming never allows his scholars to view such circumstances as a handicap.

“Our kids are champions,” he said. “We teach responsibility and self-respect, and that their background is incidental.”

The program was born of a desire to lift up residents of the neighborhood surrounding USC.

“They’re in awe of this place,” Fleming said. “They know USC is a ticket to a good career. But the kids never saw themselves as being able to go here. It’s too expensive, for one. And each year admission requirements are getting higher.”

In their attempt to beat the odds, Fleming’s scholars arrive every weekday morning at USC for two hours of instruction with specially trained teachers from neighborhood schools. Then they return to their home schools, where they go through the same day as their peers. They are required to return to USC three times a week for one and a half to two hours of tutoring with USC students.

The NAI students return to campus yet again on Saturday mornings with their parents. While the students receive still more tutoring, either in regular academic subjects or in SAT preparations, at least one of their parents must enroll in NAI’s Family Development Institute. The institute delivers lectures on modern child-rearing practices and ways to develop a home environment conducive to learning.

“Your scholars should be doing work every night,” Monica Triplett, NAI’s academic adviser, warned at a recent FDI meeting. “If your scholar says, ‘I don’t have anything tonight,’ don’t buy it.”

Teenage pregnancy, joining a gang, using drugs or engaging in physical fights are grounds for dismissal. An “early warning” system alerts NAI officials when scholars misbehave in the academy, their home schools or the community. And the program’s “blabber-mouth policy” swiftly delivers word of any missteps to parents.

“At first they resent it,” Fleming said of the parents. “But then we explain why their help is necessary. Most parents come around. It’s like: ‘Thank you very much for telling me about it. I’ll take care of it.'”

NAI teachers give instruction in resisting the temptations of drugs and gangs and avoiding potential dead ends on the road to college. On a recent morning, seventh-grade students took turns practicing techniques for combating peer pressure to have sex.

“We have to look at life for the student that extends beyond the classroom,” said Cynthia Amos, a neighborhood teacher who taught in the academy for six years. “We can’t change the environment, but we can help the scholar negotiate it.”

From the very beginning, students hear about their responsibility to their community.

“You are the ones who are going to have to raise South-Central up,” Alex Venegas, an NAI 11th-grader, told fellow Foshay students during a recent recruitment session. “The academy is only the vehicle that will get you there.”

Excellence in vision, character, productivity and responsibility – this is a philosophy honed by Fleming, who rose from segregated schools in Kentucky to receive a doctorate in educational administration from Harvard University.

Of the class’s original 50 members, 36 are still enrolled in the academy. “Some kids said, ‘This is too hard,’ or their parents said, ‘I want my kids to be kids – not scholars,'” Fleming recalled.

But for those who stayed the course, the results are unmistakable. Older scholars display an almost brazen confidence and motivation. Aaron Gray, an NAI graduate who has been accepted by USC’s School of Engineering, has finished a novel and is writing a second book. Another scholar recounts detailed plans for an academic career in Spanish literature, culminating in a seat on Spain’s Academia Real, the scholarly body that protects the Spanish language from outside influence. Yet another makes no secret of his dream to one day sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We encourage them when they come up with ideas to think, ‘How are you going to do it – how are you going to make it?'” said Nita Moots Kincaid, the program’s associate director.

The lifeline will extend through the scholars’ undergraduate careers. NAI is trying to raise money for tutors for its alumni in college.

Other communities may soon receive similar help. Fleming is in discussion with university officials and public school authorities hoping to establish partnerships modeled on NAI in Grahamstown, South Africa, and Hartford, Conn.

Closer to home, Fleming believes it will take a couple of “generations” of NAI graduates for neighborhood students to truly appreciate what they are being offered.

“Until they see their neighbors attending USC … the opportunity won’t seem real to them,” he said.

In the meantime, officials at local schools marvel at the way in which NAI scholars are “raising the bar” in schools better known for hopelessness than intellectual cockiness. Last year, Manual Arts, the neighborhood high school attended by the first class, had five students with combined SATs of 1,000 or higher, according to math teacher Roger Onstine. This year, at least 22 students – 17 of them NAI scholars – scored 1,000 or higher.

“There’s been an attitude that these students don’t – and can’t – learn,” Onstine said. “NAI has shown that they can learn a lot more than we thought.”

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