The Price of Admission

By David Hill — November 01, 1995 24 min read
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Alfredo Grajalez lives in South Central Los Angeles, in a green and white wood bungalow that is weathered on the outside but neat and tidy on the inside. The house is small--so small, in fact, that Alfredo, who is 15 years old, doesn’t even have his own bedroom; he sleeps on a foldout couch in the living room. Alfredo has gotten used to it, though; when you’ve got five brothers, privacy is hard to come by.

Four years ago, Alfredo was a student at James Foshay Junior High, an ancient public school that was once on the verge of being taken over by the state because students’ test scores were so low. One of his teachers, Cynthia Amos, was looking for students to take part in a new program that had just started at the University of Southern California, about a mile east of Foshay. Called the Pre-College Enrichment Academy, the program takes kids from public schools near USC, brings them to the college campus for two hours of rigorous classes every morning, and then sends them back to their regular schools. Students who stay in the program through 12th grade are rewarded with full four-year scholarships to USC, provided they meet the university’s entrance requirements. Amos thought Alfredo, a hard-working student who was doing well in his classes at Foshay, was a good candidate for the program. Alfredo decided to give it a try.

School had always been pretty easy for Alfredo, who was born in Belize but came to the United States with his family in 1986. When he entered the USC academy, however, he was suddenly having to do several hours of homework each night, not an easy task with three younger brothers running around the Grajalez’s cramped quarters. That’s when his father, Antonio, decided to build the shed.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in June, Antonio Grajalez showed me the plywood shack that he built for his son. Grafted onto the back of the house, the shed has a desk, a chair, a light, a typewriter, a fan, some faded carpet, and a lock on the door. “Here,’' he said, “Alfredo can concentrate and be alone. His little brothers make too much noise, so he locks himself in here and does his work.’' Grajalez, 52, was a farmer back in Belize but is now employed as a security guard supervisor at a shopping mall on the West Side of Los Angeles. He works long hours to provide for his family. “I don’t have much to offer my sons,’' he said, “but I do what I can.’' He was still wearing his blue uniform from work. His wife, Carmita, looked proudly at her husband’s handiwork, while Alfredo--who dreams of becoming a computer engineer--sat at his desk with a big smile on his face. His 12-year-old brother, Arnulfo, stood quietly next to his parents. He, too, is now enrolled in the USC program, following in his brother’s footsteps.

It’s impossible to know how Alfredo might be doing in school if it weren’t for the Pre-College Enrichment Academy. He’s obviously smart, and his parents, though poor, offer the kind of support and encouragement that any student would envy. But in South Central Los Angeles, home to some of the city’s most notorious street gangs, even the best students have a hard time making the grade. At many schools, it isn’t exactly cool to be smart. A quiet kid like Alfredo could easily have gotten lost along the way. The USC program has given him the chance to thrive--along with the chance to attend one of the nation’s top universities for free.

“My fundamental goal,’' said James Fleming, the program’s charismatic director, “is to prove that all students can be learners, that every human being has an innate predisposition to learn.’'

I met Fleming at his office on the USC campus, an island of affluence in what is otherwise one of the poorest sections of Los Angeles. A large man who dresses with flair, Fleming, who recently turned 60, was wearing a gray double-breasted suit with a white handkerchief poking out of the pocket, a crisp white shirt with French cuffs, and a gold collar pin. On the wall were three photographs taken when Fleming was honored at the White House last year: In one, he’s shaking hands with the president; in another, with Hillary Rodham Clinton; and in another, with Vice President Al Gore. Outside his office window, a palm tree was gently swaying in the wind.

Fleming, who has a doctorate from Harvard University in administration planning and social policy, was hired by USC in 1989 to develop a program to be called the Neighborhood Academic Initiative. The idea was to establish stronger ties between the private university and the surrounding inner-city neighborhood and, in the process, identify talented students in nearby public schools so they could be recruited to attend USC. (Of the university’s 27,000 students, 60 percent are white, 20 percent are Asian-American, 12 percent are Hispanic, 7 percent are African-American, and 1 percent are Native American.) Funding for the program would come from the university and a handful of corporate sponsors.

Fleming spent about a year coming up with a feasible plan and then trying to sell it to skeptical USC professors and local school principals. The core component, as he saw it, would be something called the Pre-College Enrichment Academy. Fleming wanted the program to focus on the students who were doing C-average work or better, not necessarily the top achievers, but he also wanted students who had the desire--and the ability--to do better. So prospective students would have to take an essay test and sit for an interview before they could be admitted.

Fleming envisioned an after-school program for several hundred students in grades 7 through 12, who would come to USC in the afternoon, after school was out, for high-level enrichment classes. The focus would be on language arts skills: reading, writing, note-taking, test-taking, public speaking, and the like. Teachers would be recruited from the same neighborhood schools the students attended.

Howard Lappin, who had recently been appointed principal of Foshay Junior High, signed on right away, as did the principal of another neighborhood school, Adams Junior High. Lappin, a straight-talking veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District who looks a bit like actor Wilford Brimley, saw the USC program as a way to help get Foshay back on track.

“Without Howard,’' Fleming said, “none of this could have gotten off the ground. He made it move.’' It was Lappin, in fact, who suggested that the program take place in the morning, before school, not in the afternoon. Fleming thought that was a great idea. “You catch them when they’re academically fresh, when their minds are ready and open and quick,’' he said.

In 1991, 59 7th graders from Foshay and Adams were selected to inaugurate the program. Now, four years later, 245 students are enrolled, and members of that first class will enter USC in the fall of 1997. The “scholars,’' as students in the program are called, now come from Foshay, John Muir Middle School, and Manual Arts High School, all of which are close to the USC campus. (Adams dropped out last year after it was unable to fulfill the academy’s requirements.) They wear uniforms, take college-prep classes at USC Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 noon, attend tutoring sessions several afternoons each week, and participate in group counseling sessions once a week. Parents are required to attend the Family Development Institute--workshops and seminars held at USC every other Saturday on such topics as parenting, citizenship acquisition, human sexuality, nutrition, cultural awareness, family conflict resolution, and employment skills. The idea behind the institute is to get the parents, many of whom may not have graduated from high school, let alone college, involved in the educational process.

Academy teachers--currently, there are 10--are handpicked by Fleming and the school principals. For their efforts, they get to teach one less class at their home school, and they are given an extra planning period. They do not receive more money.

The academy demands a lot of the scholars and their families, but Fleming makes no apologies. “We’d have them on Sundays if we could!’' he said, smiling.

I wanted to see some scholars in action, so Fleming escorted me to a nearby building, where, in a bare USC classroom, two teachers were leading a group of 9th graders in a discussion of Richard Wright’s novel Black Boy. Actually, the teachers--Myra LeBendig and Laura Williams--were mostly observing the 40 or so students, who had broken into two groups; half the students were discussing the book, while the others sat quietly, taking notes on what they observed. (Later, they would switch roles.) The students--a mixture of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans--were wearing the designated academy uniform: green pants and white shirts for the boys, green plaid skirts and white shirts for the girls.

The level of discourse was impressive. The students had read the book carefully and critically, and they seemed eager to talk about it. After about 20 minutes or so of discussion, LeBendig--who, like her colleague, had said little up until now--said, “Now let’s hear from the observers.’' She wanted the students to critique their peers on their discussion abilities, on matters of content as well as form.

“Everyone who spoke had good statements,’' one girl offered, “and they backed everything up with examples.’' Williams tried to elicit comments about the students’ style of speaking--their presentation, their body language.

The class, I realized, was as much about how to talk about a book as it was about what to talk about. Such skills would be essential when these students got to college.

After the class ended, I walked back to the program’s office with LeBendig, a veteran English teacher who has spent the last eight years at Foshay. I told her I was impressed by what I had just seen, particularly since the teachers had stayed pretty much in the background. “It’s a lot more powerful that way, isn’t it?’' she said. “We know that when we turn over the reins, when we become the facilitators, we’re going to get a better response. So we guide. And the program really demands that kind of attitude.’'

Back at the office, I met with some of the academy’s teachers and counselors. It was clear that they considered themselves fortunate to be involved in such a project. Williams, a USC graduate who went on to become a teacher at Adams Junior High School, said she begged her principal to let her teach in the program. “It was a dream job for me,’' she said, “and it still is.’' (She now teaches at Foshay.)

What, I asked, are the students like when they first enter the academy? “They’re usually in shock or denial,’' said teacher Cynthia Amos, who grew up in South Central but graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles, USC’s cross-town rival. “Then, after the first two or three weeks, you can tell if they’re going to go for it or not.’' The ones who can’t hack it are asked to leave.

“A lot of them are not used to having to control their behavior,’' said Marcia Wilson, who runs the program’s counseling component. “They’re used to being able to be silly and to giggle and to laugh and get out of their seats and act like 6th graders. Then they come here, and we’re on their behavior all the time. And some of them just really don’t react well to that. So we have to be patient.’'

Nonetheless, the program has a long waiting list. “During the interview,’' said teacher Gricelda Carbajal, “the students get the sense that this is a real positive program. Very nurturing. So they want to be a part of it.

“But our kids do experience some discrimination. People make fun of them because they are studying constantly, even during lunch. They wear uniforms. They carry heavy backpacks because we expect them to be prepared all the time. And the regular students do not always behave like that. So they do get laughed at.’'

In South Central Los Angeles, it’s no small thing being called “schoolboy’’ or “schoolgirl’’ by other students. “Out here,’' Wilson told me, “that’s a derogatory term. That’s like calling someone a nerd. So we encourage our scholars to stick together.’'

At the same time, the regular students can’t help but be a little jealous of the scholars. “My students,’' Williams said, “sometimes say, ‘Miss Williams, why can’t we do what the USC kids do?’ They do pick on them, but they also envy them a bit.’'

“Dr. Fleming always talks about ‘bringing everyone along,’ '' added counselor Don Peters. “He talks about making sure that we’re not a program that is fostering some kind of elitism. While we do encourage their identity as scholars, there’s this idea of bringing the entire community along. The program isn’t about how you can escape the ghetto; it’s about how you can change the community.’'

Change is very much in evidence at Foshay Junior High (now called Foshay Learning Center), within walking distance of USC but seemingly light years away. A three-story stucco building put up in 1923, the tired-looking school sits right in the middle of a gang-controlled neighborhood. I met principal Howard Lappin in his large first-floor office. When I asked him about the school’s location, he pointed out the window to a gang house directly across the street. “This is a Crips area,’' he told me. “Down the street is another gang house. Ninety percent of our kids qualify for free lunches. Actually, more than that, but I can’t get everyone to return their applications. But we’re basically a poverty school. All minority. Tough neighborhood. We don’t do anything here at night because it’s not safe.’'

Lappin was appointed principal of the school in 1989. He had spent most of his career as a teacher or administrator in various Los Angeles senior high schools, so moving to Foshay wasn’t exactly a promotion. “This was the armpit of the district,’' he said. “It was not a ‘plum’ assignment.’' In fact, the school was a disaster. “When I got here,’' he told me, “it was not a safe school. Kids and teachers had been assaulted. The bell would ring, and kids would wander all over the place. Nobody paid attention to going to class.’' And it showed; Foshay’s test scores ranked lowest of any middle school in the district. Two weeks into the job, Lappin was told that unless he turned the school around, a state trustee would be put in charge.

With strong support from his teaching staff, Lappin managed to turn things around. He went looking for outside sources of funding, and he hit pay dirt: a $1.5 million state grant to help restructure the school’s teacher development. Next, Foshay became part of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN, a sweeping plan to raise student achievement by shifting decisionmaking to local schools. Then, Foshay was selected to become a model of reform sponsored by the New American Schools Development Corp., a nonprofit organization created in 1991 by business leaders at the urging of President Bush. The program has paid for five extra teachers, about $1 million in computer equipment, and nearly one month of training time for every teacher. It’s also allowed Foshay to become a “learning center,’' that is, a K-12 school that students can attend from start to finish.

But it was the Pre-College Enrichment Academy, Lappin said, that got the ball rolling in the first place. “The program,’' he said, “became a catalyst for turning the school around. It really helped change the culture of the school. We had a group of 30 kids who came back to school every day from USC, and people started to notice. They did what they were supposed to do. They were scholars; they believed in themselves. So we folded that into what we were about as a school.’'

Six years later, Foshay is nationally recognized as a center for school reform. Test scores have improved, and the dropout rate has gone down. Visitors from around the country often drop by to see what all the excitement is about; Prince Charles even checked the place out.

“This is a very safe campus now,’' Lappin said, “a very orderly campus. When the bell rings, the kids are basically in class. When you walk through classes, kids are engaged in learning. There’s no nonsense, no running around, no garbage that goes on here. It’s a school that functions.’'

I asked Lappin about his role in the USC program. “My role is supporter,’' he said. “Pusher. Advocate. Enabler. The program is wonderful, so I’m the ultimate fan.

“What’s beautiful about the model,’' he continued, “is that we take kids from normal schools, and we keep them in normal schools with some extra things, and they succeed. They don’t have to live away from home; they can be in the community. I’m a believer in the public school system, and this functions as part of a normal public school. And I like that. To me, that’s what’s important. We take normal kids from this community, and they aren’t ‘normal’ anymore. They believe in themselves.’'

Fleming, too, had emphasized that the kids in the program were average, not necessarily gifted and talented. But they also must apply to get into the program. Isn’t that a form of self-selection?

“Absolutely,’' Lappin answered. The program, he pointed out, isn’t for everyone. After all, academy students must be willing to wear uniforms and to give up their Saturday mornings, and their parents must be willing to attend the Family Development Institute every other Saturday. “That’s a lot to ask,’' Lappin said. “And there are some great kids who have said, ‘No, I won’t do that.’ And that’s OK. So sure, there’s self-selection. But it’s still community-based. They’re not gifted kids, per se. They’re just kids who are willing to make a commitment.

“So maybe what we’re saying is, if a kid is willing to make that commitment, and the school can support that commitment and provide what we need to do with the kids, then those kids are going to be successful. That’s not a bad statement. That’s a very good statement. You can be in your own community and get a good education. That’s what we’re about.’'

The following day, i returned to Foshay to meet with four mothers whose children are enrolled in the academy. We sat at a round table in the school’s resource room for parents.

To say the mothers were enthusiastic about the program is an understatement; in fact, they could barely contain their excitement. “Oh, we love the program!’' gushed Elva Jones, as the other three women nodded their heads in agreement. Her son, Lehman Locklin, has been a scholar for two years; he is now in 9th grade. When he first started the program, Jones explained, he was called a nerd by his schoolmates. “So,’' she said, “I told him, ‘If you’re going to be a nerd, be a good one! Hold your head up high! Be the best nerd you can be!’ '' Now, she said, Lehman wears his green and white uniform proudly, and he carries his book in a burgundy USC backpack. “Oh, it’s hard work,’' she said. “But anything that’s easy is not going to be worth it.’'

Carmita Grajalez, the mother of Alfredo and Arnulfo, praised the program’s Family Development Institute, which she credited with bringing her out of her shell. “Talking about sex, for example,’' she told me in her Spanish-accented English. “I was always embarrassed to speak with my kids because they are all boys. But because of the seminars that I’ve been going to, I feel more at ease. I know when to approach them, when to talk to them. Even with my husband; we sit down and talk about problems and find solutions. So it has really been a tremendous change in my life.’'

Grajalez, who had recently been honored with a trophy for her perfect attendance at the Saturday seminars, added: “The program gives us a sense of importance. It makes us feel like we have earned something good, that we can be somebody. It’s changed me so much that I am considering going back to school.’'

Lilian Chavarria, who had been silent until now, suddenly said, “I want to tell something more.’' A native of Honduras, she and her family emigrated to the United States about 10 years ago. “For me,’' she said, struggling to find the right words in English, “being a parent is a big challenge. I live in a neighborhood that is very dangerous, but this program has been a blessing.’' Her husband, she said, removes asbestos for a living; she is a housewife. Their son Johnny is an 11th grade scholar. “Our life is so difficult,’' she said. “I have to be a housewife because I have four boys. I don’t have any family here to help me. But in this program, I feel that they are my family.’' Overcome with emotion, she began to cry; two of the other women put their hands on her shoulders. “I love them very much. I can’t describe in words what this program means to me. It’s the love, it’s the kindness, it’s the consideration, and it’s the encouragement. I love Dr. Fleming! I love him like a father!’'

I’d heard much praise for Fleming, from parents and teachers alike. “He’s a very strong leader,’' one teacher had told me, “very charismatic. Everyone looks up to him. The scholars look up to him, the parents look up to him, the teachers look up to him.’' What, I wondered, would happen if he were to leave the program?

“Oh!’' exclaimed Grajalez, shaking her head in dismay. It was as if my question had put a dagger through her heart.

“I don’t think the program would function,’' Jones added.

“He’s the heart of the program,’' said Gloria Claiborne, whose daughter, Dakieta, is an 11th grade scholar.

“Dr. Fleming has a place in heaven, I can tell you that!’' Grajalez said.

Some people have questioned whether the USC academy is too dependent on Fleming’s charismatic personality to be duplicated. In an article last year in The Wall Street Journal, Sylvia Manning, USC’s former executive vice provost and one of the program’s initiators, said, “I’m not convinced that it’s replicable. You need a James Fleming.’'

When I posed the question to some of the program’s staff members, counselor Don Peters answered, “That’s the very last thing James Fleming would want. He wants to make it very clear that it’s the model and the system that work. You might need a Fleming-like person doing what he does, but the last thing he would want to hear is that this program works only because of James Fleming. He would be very disappointed. Because if that’s the case, we’re in big trouble.’'

The replicability issue is now being tested about 400 miles to the north, at the University of San Francisco. Paul Warren, dean of the private university’s school of education, was so impressed by the USC academy that he recently launched a similar model at his school. Yet he, too, wonders about what might happen at USC if Fleming were to leave. “That’s an open question,’' he said. “A lot of it falls on his shoulders.’'

For Fleming, it’s a moot question anyway. He’s not going anywhere, he says. In fact, he wants to transform the academy into a self-contained program by the year 2000. “We’re moving toward independence,’' he told me. “We want our own school.’'

I was surprised to hear that. The academy seemed to be working just fine; why mess with a good thing? What advantage would there be in severing ties to USC and the Los Angeles Unified School District? Fleming grinned, as if the answer were obvious. “Absolute control of the conditions and circumstances,’' he said. “Absolute control of the amount of days the kids come to school. Absolute control over the training of teachers.’'

But where would the money come from? “Well,’' he said, “that’s my job, to go out and get that money. It’ll come from Texaco, Aetna, all the people I draw money from now. That’s the idea.’' He was meeting with a representative from Coca-Cola later that day, he told me. His plan called for 60 percent of the school’s students to be on corporate-funded scholarships.

“Imagine if we had the kids six hours a day and all day on Saturday,’' he said, “instead of just two hours a day and four hours on Saturday. And not just for 160 days but for 240 days. We’d be in competition with Japan!’'

Reached by telephone, USC president Steven Sample--an enthusiastic supporter of the Neighborhood Academic Initiative--was surprised to hear of Fleming’s plans. “Frankly,’' he said, “he hasn’t told me about it. But sometimes programs do evolve.’'

If james fleming is the heart of the Pre-College Enrichment Academy, Cynthia Amos might just be its soul. “When I first hit Foshay,’' Fleming had told me, “the first thing I said to [Lappin] was, ‘Give me your best teacher. Give me the one who will really latch onto this and see it as an advantage.’ He gave me Cynthia Amos, God bless! She’s a dynamite teacher.’'

When I sat in on one of Amos’ academy classes, I immediately saw what Fleming was talking about. A tall, striking woman with a commanding presence, Amos grew up in the neighborhood--she even attended Foshay Junior High--a fact that wasn’t lost on her students. She spoke to them almost like a mother, in a gentle-but-firm tone. “What’s wrong with you?’' she asked one boy, slumped in his seat. “Sit up in your chair!’' When someone mentioned the movie Batman Forever, which was about to open, she seized the opportunity to talk about violence--in the movies and in real life. “I bet everyone in this room knows someone who got killed or shot,’' she said. “And it just wasn’t like that when I was a kid.’'

The students, about 25 8th graders, had arrived this morning expecting to take a final exam, but Amos was empty-handed--and irritated: A student worker at Foshay, it turned out, had failed to make copies of the test. “I can tell you guys are heartbroken,’' she told her class. The final would have to wait. “But that final exam is coming. If I have to take it to Kinko’s at 6 o’clock in the morning, that final is coming!’'

Instead, Amos scribbled some study suggestions on the board to help the students prepare for the final. After they copied the tips into their notebooks, Amos gave them a gentle, heartfelt pep talk. “This is the time that you really need to go through the hoop,’' she said. “You have to do it yourself, and you can. You’ve been here for two years--you know what’s expected of you. This is the time to keep your wits about you. We believe in you. We don’t ask you to do things that we don’t think you can do.’'

Later that day, I drove with Amos to El Cholo, a popular Mexican restaurant, where we would meet Fleming and several other academy teachers for lunch. We headed north on Western Avenue, the site of much destruction during the 1992 riots. “They tore all this up during the riots,’' Amos said, pointing to an empty lot. “That little spot over there used to be a print shop. They looted and burned it.’'

As a top student at Foshay Junior High, Amos was teased, even scorned, by her South Central peers. But she refused to be held back; in fact, she decided to enroll at Beverly Hills High School, as part of the school’s minority recruitment program. The contrast was striking; she found herself “stepping over a bum to get to the bus stop in the morning and then having lunch with friends at the Century City shopping mall.’' For college, Amos decided to go to UCLA, another bastion of privilege.

But Amos couldn’t turn her back on South Central. After graduating from college, she taught in the San Fernando Valley for a few years, all the time hoping to land a job in her old neighborhood. When she heard that Foshay was hiring teachers, she jumped at the opportunity. Now, she and her husband live about 10 minutes from the school.

“This is my community!’' Amos said. “That’s why when people come here and start saying, ‘South Central this,’ and ‘L.A. that,’ I say, ‘Hold it. This is my community.’ That’s what bothers me about a lot of the teachers at Foshay. They don’t have any ownership of the community; they say things that are true on one level and not true on another. A lot of people in this neighborhood get up and go to work every day, and they work low-level jobs. But they’re doing the best they can; they’re hard-working individuals. So don’t come in here with that ‘Everyone is on welfare’ stuff. Because that’s not true.’'

I asked Amos if she saw herself as a role model to her students. “I don’t know if I’m a role model,’' she said, “but I can tell it like it is. And they see me around the neighborhood, so I do have a certain degree of credibility.

“You know, when I was growing up and going to school, I don’t think I would have been the person that I am if it hadn’t been for my teachers because my teachers took a lot of interest in me. So when I look out there and see those kids, I see what I think I was like when I was their age. So the academy is a way for me to really teach kids and really make a difference for the ones who are overlooked in the classroom, the ones who don’t necessarily stand out.’'

I asked her about her teaching style--the way she would bring up her personal experiences with her students. “A lot of teachers do that,’' she said. “I think it lets the students see that other people have faced the same problems and have turned out reasonably well. These kids are desensitized to a lot of things. When they say they’ve seen and done it all, a lot of times they’re not far from the truth. At 12 years old!’'

We pulled into the restaurant parking lot. It was Friday, and Amos was looking forward to a hard-earned margarita.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as The Price of Admission


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