For schools near USC, it’s all part of the family

Not many Trojans can say they’ve been a part of the USC family from infancy, but Jairo Umana can.

The Information Technology Services staff member kick-started his career at the Multimedia University Academy, a USC neighborhood outreach program that offered at-risk, inner-city kids opportunities in multimedia. But his USC education didn’t begin there.

Umana attended a USC Head Start preschool before moving on to 32nd Street Elementary School across the street from USC and adjacent to the Shrine Auditorium. The K-12 school also includes the USC Math, Science and Technology High School, Umana’s alma mater.

Reaching out · USC President C. L. Max Nikias has recently toured 10 of 15 schools in the Family of Schools partnership. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said of the visits. | Photo courtesy of the Office of the President

“His entire life has been really shaped by and molded by USC programs,” said Kim Thomas Barrios, executive director of the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative Program, who has followed Umana’s academic and professional careers.

32nd Street is also a part of the USC Family of Schools program, the brainchild of former USC President Steven B. Sample, which has had a lasting impact on the university and its surrounding community.

Sample assumed presidency of the university in 1991, a tenuous period in Los Angeles history. Census data from the year before painted a dismal picture of education in the area — 30 percent of Los Angeles County residents older than 25 had not finished high school. More than 26 percent of teenagers between 16 and 19 years old were not even enrolled in school.

But the communities that surrounded USC — including Umana’s — saw significantly higher numbers than the rest of the county.

In an address to students, staff and community members shortly after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Sample made community engagement a priority — specifically within schools.

“We want parents from all over the region to look at our community schools and say, ‘That’s where I want to send my child,’” he said.

“There were five initiatives that he outlined for the neighborhood in terms of engagement with the university, and one of those was education,” Barrios said. “That’s when the Family of Schools was born.”

It began as a partnership between USC and the five neighborhood schools nearest the university — Foshay Learning Center, Norwood Street Elementary School, Vermont Avenue Elementary School, Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School and 32nd Street School/USC Magnet School.

The original schools are now referred to as the “Family of Five,” but the Family of Schools has since added 10 more schools near the University Park Campus and the Health Sciences Campus to its roster.

The outreach didn’t stop there.

In 1994, Sample created the Good Neighbors Campaign, a fundraising effort aimed at USC faculty and staff. Since then, more than $11 million has been donated to support programs that not only supplement English and math education but revive arts programs that are  often among the first to disappear when district budget cuts are made.

“Music education pretty much went the way of the dodo,” Barrios said. “When money’s tight and students need English and math instruction, the money’s going to go to English and math instruction.”

The Family of Schools didn’t invent community engagement, as several high-profile USC service groups, such as the Joint Educational Project and the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, existed long before the Family of Schools. But even if they were connected to the community, the programs were disengaged from each other.

The Family of Schools pulls these programs together so that they’re working toward unified goals specific to each school, Barrios said.

“The principals are engaged,” said Barrios, who meets with each principal to discuss their schools’ needs and goals. “What is it that they would really like to see happen with a partnership with USC?”

Lynn Brown, the principal of Weemes is a part of such discussions — but not just with Barrios.

“I’ve met with USC students, USC readers, students who tutor our children during the day and after school,” Brown said.

USC President C. L. Max Nikias has also made an effort to reach out by visiting 10 of the 15 schools to better understand their needs.

“It’s been a wonderful experience for me to visit them on their grounds,” Nikias said in a Nov. 9 discussion with USC students. “I had a hard time going to sleep in the evenings. I was having a lot of ideas of what we can do to make a difference, especially for the kids.”

Now the differences come in the form of more than 400 USC service programs. Weemes benefits from several of these, including Kid Watch, a safety initiative where volunteers direct traffic and help get students safely walk from their cars and into school.

“Kid Watch, because of USC, has helped get our parents trained by the Department of Transportation to do what we [do],” Brown said.

The list doesn’t end there. JEP, one of USC’s oldest programs, sends tutors and teacher’s assistants to the schools. KUSC Kids exposes children and their families to classical music. After School Sports Connection offers students an instruction in a variety of activities, including swimming, soccer and martial arts.

Still, the Family of Schools doesn’t just benefit the community’s kids.

Emily Brooke, a sophomore majoring in sociology, is the assistant coordinator of the USC Readers Program efforts at Norwood. She said her experience has been inspiring.

“We were teaching them geography and they couldn’t put Los Angeles in California,” Brooke said. “Seeing that happen around me makes me want to make sure they have an opportunity to learn and that they love learning.”

“It’s a symbiotic relationship, you don’t just get a good feeling — you actually know that you’ve made a huge difference,” Barrios said.

No research is available about the measurable changes the USC Family of Schools has made overall, Barrios said, but statistics for each of the programs have shown a positive reflection of the their effectiveness.

Ninety-five percent of the students are accepted to higher education institutions. Eighty-three percent of those go to a four-year university, Barrios said.

And 35 percent, like Umana, end up attending USC.

“Now we’re an elementary school. People aren’t really thinking about college,” Brown said. “But one of my goals this year is to make sure that every student from kindergarten to fifth grade says that they’re going to USC.”

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