Congrats, NAI Grads: Headed to Harvard, West Point and USC

By Eddie North-Hager and Merrill Balassone

Which high school graduating class boasts 100 percent of its students enrolling in higher education?

All 54 graduates of USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative(NAI) program, an intensive program serving public school students from the university’s neighborhoods, will continue their education this fall.


Twenty-six of the graduates will attend USC on a full-tuition scholarship, with more headed for other top universities around the country, including Harvard University, the United States Military Academy at West Point, Morehouse College and University of California campuses.

Twin brothers Arnulfo, left, and Jesus Moran will be the first and second in their family to attend college. (All photos by Dietmar Quistorf)

The program’s students, many the first in their families to attend college, spent six to seven years coming to USC’s campus for early-morning math and English classes and after school tutoring during the week and daylong Saturday classes.

“To date, 695 South L.A. students have graduated from the NAI program and gone to college — that’s huge in our community,” said Kim Thomas-Barrios, NAI’s executive director. “NAI works because we provide the academic rigor every child needs. We bring them to the USC campus to learn math and English in a university setting, where many never thought they had a chance to attend.”

The NAI is a seven-year, pre-college, comprehensive, educational enrichment program operated by USC Civic Engagement. NAI prepares low-income, minority students living in the neighborhoods surrounding USC for success at a college or university. Those who complete the program, meet USC’s competitive admission requirements and choose to attend USC, are awarded a four-and-a-half-year full-tuition scholarship.

Juan Ramirez will attend USC.

Over the past 15 years, 99 percent of NAI graduates have enrolled in secondary education programs, with 83 percent enrolling as freshmen in four-year colleges. More than one-third of NAI graduates during that time attended USC.

NAI also boasts a Family Development Institute that assists parents in supporting their college-bound child with workshops and training on various issues, such as financial literacy and college retention.

Among the 2012 highlights:

• Twin brothers Arnulfo and Jesus Moran will be the first and second in their family to attend college. Arnulfo will attend the United States Military Academy at West Point and will major in mechanical engineering. Jesus will attend Harvard University (the first to be accepted to Harvard in NAI’s 20-year history) to study political science.

Viviana Padilla will attend USC.

• Juan Ramirez will attend USC and major in global health with aspirations to become a pediatrician. His father’s battle with cancer only increased Ramirez’s drive to attend college and work toward a career in medicine.

• Viviana Padilla, a first-generation college student, will attend USC. As a volunteer at both a children’s hospital and senior center, Padilla found where she could make a difference. She’ll be majoring in neuroscience and forensic psychology.

• Jessica Rodriguez will attend USC. She was senior captain on her high school robotics team, participated in USC’s MESA program and attended NASA’s Summer of Innovation Camp — all while mentoring younger students. Rodriguez will major in biology and plans to become a pediatrician.

Jessica Rodriguez will attend USC.

• Lizette Zarate was part of the second graduating class of NAI in 1998. She earned her bachelor’s degree from USC and is finishing her doctorate in education at Loyola Marymount University. She is writing her dissertation on NAI as she oversees the NAI Saturday Academy, where more than 600 students receive six hours of intensive instruction in math, science and English.

“I’m not that special around here,” Zarate said. “Our objective is to ensure all our kids go to college and they all do — becoming lawyers and doctors and such — all from the inner city representing NAI.”

• Kinder to College — This year, NAI started an innovative new program to get boys reading by the third grade. About 50 kindergarteners from the USC Family of Schools spend Saturdays learning how to read without using textbooks. Instead the focus is on activities where reading leads to rewards, such as instructions on creating a lava lamp with Alka Seltzer and food coloring.

While the kids play to learn, the parents are mentored on child development by Sean Taitt, a bilingual program manager who helped develop the curriculum.

The program, funded in part by a donation from Judge James “Jimmy” Reese ’46, will follow the boys all the way through sixth grade, when they would transition into the NAI program.

You can learn more about the program on this ABC-7 video:

Creating healthy neighborhoods

imageBy Eddie North-Hager

This is the second part of a series called Healthy ‘Hoods, which examines the notion of environmental injustice in South Los Angeles.

Hiking along some of the seven miles of trails in Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, it’s easy to forget how close you are to the middle of the city. And with four more parks comprising nearly 60 acres right across the street, it’s easy to think that South Los Angeles is filled with parks just like this one.

But this rich concentration of green space in the far northwest corner of South L.A. belies the fact that the rest of this area is so park poor.

How did western L.A. County end up having 59 acres of park space per 1,000 people and South L.A. end up with 1.2 acres per 1,000 people?

According to the report in “Parks and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity Mapping Analysis,” the evidence adds up to a conclusion that environmental injustice was no accident.

Past discrimination in housing, past discrimination in employment, ongoing placement of facilities that pollute, and the inequity in locations for urban services add up to the reality that the poor and communities of color are likely to be relegated to park-poor neighborhoods, reports the study’s author, Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley.

“[W]ealthier districts are more likely to boast plentiful parks and greenbelts provided by public funding,” the report finds.

Some of the problems we are facing today have their roots in laws created in 1904, according to the report. It was the first ordinance to regulate where business and residences could locate.

The zoning code “protected the affluent, predominantly Anglo Westside from industrial uses and high density housing,” finds Wolch, who was then the director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities.

Industry and high-density housing were allowed to locate, instead, right by the city’s eastern and southern areas, where the working class called home. Parks and other urban amenities were located in other parts of town. As parks increase a home’s value, this inequality translates into a larger gap between the rich and poor, the report finds.

Los Angeles wasn’t alone. In 1912, the city of Torrance developed a well-thought-out plan to house the city’s workers, mainly Latinos, downwind of the city’s industrial plants and their pollutants, Wolch reports.

In addition to school segregation through the 1940s and racially restrictive housing covenants through the 1950s, parks were also historically segregated in Los Angeles.

Blacks could only swim in the public pool on International Day, the day before the pool was cleaned and the water drained, according to “Healthy Parks, Schools, and Communities: Mapping Green Access and Equity” by Robert García and Aubrey White of City Project.

Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach was one of the few beaches blacks could enjoy in the 1920s. By the ‘30s, city officials forced them out, leaving only one other place for blacks to enjoy the ocean — the Inkwell at Pico Boulevard — according to the City Project report.

“The struggle to maximize public access to public lands while ensuring the fair treatment of people of all colors, cultures, and incomes can transform the Los Angeles region into a more livable, democratic, and just community, and provides a replicable advocacy model for community redevelopment,” García and Aubrey report.

With such a history, how can a neighborhood — especially one so dense and so park poor as South Los Angeles — become a healthy neighborhood that encourages physical activity?

Build parks near homes. Keep sidewalks safe. Create bike lanes. These attributes lead to “walkable communities” because they encourage people to walk more, according to the study, “Walking and Bicycling: An Evaluation of Environmental Audit Instruments.”

“Applying public health criteria to land-use and urban design decisions could substantially improve the health and quality of life of the American people,” according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Walking a little more or having a park nearby could help shed just a few pounds. A few makes an impact — losing seven pounds helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes in high-risk patients by 60 percent, and diabetes is linked to obesity.

“If you make some changes, you can feel safe walking to the corner store or the mall,” says Anthony Crump, a policy analyst with the Community Health Councils in South L.A. “If you have a bike lane and bike parking, kids and adults will be more likely to use them.”

In the same way, shade trees, crosswalks, street furniture and other types of infrastructure can encourage people to walk. People are more likely to ride bicycles when there are bike racks to park their bike and bike lanes that are clearly marked.

The Children’s Nature Institute is attempting to deal with South L.A.’s urban legacy by enticing kids to go outside and enjoy the local flora and fauna.

“You have to get a lot out the space you have,” says Michelle Rhone-Collins, executive director of the Children’s Nature Institute in South L.A. “There are barriers that keep people from the pristine spaces. So how do you still continue to experience nature and access those benefits? With us, we are going to walk right outside of the door.”

Institute staff take children on hikes right on the city streets and inspect ant hills, spider webs and bean pods. They take what they can get and use it as a science lesson and a moment of wonder.

It seems intuitive that green space would be a healthful benefit. Still, it’s easy to underestimate how much of a difference it can make on your mind and body.

“There are demonstrable benefits to having open space as well as experiencing different species of birds and animals, even when people are not trained to know what they are looking at,” says Travis Longcore, science director of the Urban Wildands Group and an associate professor at the University of Southern California.

“Every study says yes it matters. People internalize elements of their environment,” Longcore says.

But how much of an effect can it be?

People in an office with plants score better on repetitive task and memory recall, Longcore says.

Physical activity relieves depression and anxiety, which also correlate to high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Outdoor play is critical to a child’s cognitive development
Views of nature are linked to the mitigation of attention deficit disorder.

“Studies show that when going outside for exercise, it is better for your psychological health and well being, as well as helping prevent obesity and diabetes,” Rhone-Collins says.

In the third part of the series, we’ll look at a hiking path and green space in the South L.A. community of Leimert Park that was saved from being developed into apartments and hillside homes.

This story originally appeared on

Eddie North-Hager is the founder and editor of hyper-local social network and news site Leimert Park Beat. This project was made possible through the support of the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship program, funded by The California Endowment.

Obesity epidemic hits South L.A. harder than most

imageBy Eddie North-Hager

“Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States.”

That quote should read like a public health bombshell, yet it’s not even news anymore. It was the opening line of a study published in “Science” magazine back in 1998. The authors, James O. Hill of the University of Colorado and J.C. Peters of Procter and Gamble, Co., were among the first to identify this American public health disaster. But, if anything, the problem has gotten worse.

From 1980 to 2004, the percentage of young people who were obese tripled nationwide, rising to 18 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Here in Los Angeles County, officials report more than half the adult population is now overweight.

And while obesity is a problem for Americans in all walks of life, it’s worse when you don’t live near a park, when access to public transportation is limited, when sidewalks are broken and streetlights are few.

“We have to recognize that where we live affects our health,” says Anthony Crump, a policy analyst for Community Health Council, a group that aims to eliminate health disparities in South Los Angeles.

Crump studies the relationship between the built environment and personal health.

“If you live with limited access to parks and recreation, to high quality food, it is reflected in your health status,” Crump says.

In fact, a National Institutes of Health study found that just living in a socioeconomically deprived area leads to weight gain and a greater risk of dying at an early age.

As a homegrown example, people in Culver City live an average of eight years longer than people in Jefferson Park, according to Crump. Yet these two communities in the middle of Los Angeles are only a couple of miles apart.

“There are a whole lot of reasons why, but the bottom line is that the disparity is huge,” Crump says. “Look at the big picture and it’s a stark reality.”

The neighborhoods of South Los Angeles suffer more than most:

– Thirty-three percent of children there are overweight.
– One in seven residents has diabetes, compared to one in 12 in West L.A.
– Forty-two percent of South L.A. residents live below the federal poverty level, compared to only 12 percent in West L.A., and the numbers correspond with the rate of diabetes in each area.

South Los Angeles — nearly 100 square miles and a million people — also happens to be the most park poor area of Los Angeles, with about 1.2 acres of park space per 1,000 people. The national standard is 6 acres for every 1,000 residents. Western Los Angeles county has 59 acres of parks per 1,000 residents.

But South L.A. is not alone in terms of limited park space. Nearly two-thirds of the children in Los Angeles County — mostly the children of the poor — have no park or playground near their home, according to the City Project, which promotes increased parks and recreation for underserved communities.

“When you have less access to parks and the streets are unfriendly for walking and biking, there is less physical activity among kids and adults alike,” Crump says.

There have been some positive changes, though. Dania Bautista is trying to shed a few pounds, and the city has made it a little bit easier for her. The 29-year-old works up a sweat at Van Ness Park in South L.A. on the outdoor elliptical machine, one of several pieces of workout equipment installed throughout the park.

She comes to the park to watch her friends play soccer. Instead of being just a spectator, she takes the opportunity to get in a workout.

“I do this for my health — I’m fat and I need to lose weight and it’s not pretty,” said Bautista, who operates a tamale cart. “Before, I didn’t work out at all.”

Even modest weight loss (only 7 pounds) has been shown to reduce the risk of developing diabetes by nearly 60 percent. That’s 30 minutes of physical activity on most days. It’s going to the park or riding your bike to the market.

Ultimately, the health of a neighborhood can be measured by the levels of obesity and chronic disease, cardiovascular health, and exposure to pollution and cancer causing agents.

The stakes are high and involve more than just individual health. Obesity greatly increases the risk of developing many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, lung disease, asthma, cancer and depression.

Medical care associated with such illnesses costs California tens of billions of dollars — care for diabetes alone cost Los Angeles County $5.6 billion in 2005.

As Hill and Peters wrote in 1998, “To stop and ultimately reverse the obesity epidemic, we must ‘cure’ this environment.”

So how do you cure the environment? How do you create healthier neighborhoods? In the second part of this series, “Healthy ‘Hoods,” we’ll look at the ingredients needed.

This story originally appeared on

Eddie North-Hager is the founder and editor of hyper-local social network and news site Leimert Park Beat. This project was made possible through the support of the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship program, funded by The California Endowment.