Dads read to kids at “Donuts with Dads” event

By Claire Pires

Listen to an audio by Annenberg Radio News

About 150 dads, policemen, and mentors grabbed donuts and a book today to read to kids for the 5th Annual “Donuts with Dads” event at 99th Street Elementary School in South L.A.’s Watts neighborhood. image

“Almost 80% of the students at this school did not have a father or a father-figure in the homes or in their minds on a daily basis,” said Principal Courtney Sawyer of the school five years ago. “We came together to come up with a program to not only create parental involvement but to bring positive male role models into our children’s lives and that’s really where the idea of “Donuts with Dads” came from,” said Sawyer.

“Donuts with Dads” began five years ago and since this program and other family-included programs began, parent participation has grown from 20% five years ago to 90% currently.

“I talk to my kids about the urgency of education and hopefully they can continue on this path and go to college…maybe USC,” said father of two Noel Ramirez.

As student’s dads and other mentors read in both Spanish and English, students beamed in their colorful classrooms, and one student even claimed school is more fun than recess.

The school sits off of Century Blvd. in South L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, and they have struggled to improve their school, but the test scores show that events like “Donuts with Dads” provide a significant improvement.

“It’s a school we believe this year is gonna be above 800 in the API for the state,” said CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools Marshall Tuck as he referred to the Academic Performance Index, which refers to the growth of schools based on their academic performance and other academic measures.”To have this happen in a few years in the heart of Watts is a phenomenal thing,” said Tuck.

imageOn the first Friday of every month, parents come to the school from 8:00-8:30am to read to the kids and encourage literacy, and they have instilled other events such as “Muffins with Moms,” to increase parental involvement.

Muffled reading in various languages echoed from the classrooms of the elementary school as students and their dads took turns reading aloud amidst the waft of donuts and the sound of pages turning.

Watts youth yoga group changes lives, one breath at a time

By Paige Jarvie Brettingen

Disheartened by the rising teen incarceration rates in California, Y.O.G.A. for Youth was founded in South Central Los Angeles by Krishna Kaur in 1971. image Reaching out to kids through schools and detention centers, the yoga program teaches them how the power of their breath can ease anger, frustration and stress.

With a background in martial arts and yoga, Joe Jackson became both an instructor and mentor for sixth graders at The Watts Learning Center- the first school to participate in the program. Two years later, the students still remember the yoga poses and are anxious to start practicing again.

imageStudents practicing yoga.

Though the students will not receive yoga classes again until the summer, Jackson visited last month, encouraging them to participate once the program starts again at their school and reminding them that “stepping up to do the right thing” will reward them in the future.

In addition to its outreach in Los Angeles, Y.O.G.A. for Youth now has programs in New York, North Carolina, and Mexico. To learn more about the program, visit

CicLAvia tours Watts to build crowd-sourced neighborhood map

Last Sunday, a group of cyclists rode their bikes from Augustus Hawkins National Park in South LA to Watts towers as part of CicLAvia. The event strives to bring attention not only to bicycle culture in LA, but also to the various neighborhoods through which it rides. It encourages people to come along and see the streets in a new light, and maybe catch the bike bug along the way.

The latest event took a tour through the neighborhood of Watts, and teamed up with USC professor Francois Bar to create a crowd-sourced map of the community. Riders were encouraged to bring cell phones to snap photos, send texts and record voice messages about the ride and the community it revealed, all of which will go into the making of the map.

(Participating in the ride on Sunday, the below photos were snapped by a cyclist named Kelly.)


“Dream Team” recruited for Watts school make over

More than 100 volunteers, professional athletes, and the mayor of Los Angeles teamed up this week to help renovate Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Watts.

imageWasserman Foundation CEO Casey Wasserman, Trey Thompkins, Mayor Villaraigosa, Cesar Ramos and Alexi Lalas paint mural on handball court. (Photo: Larry Kahm)

U.S. World Cup soccer star Alexi Lalas, LA Clippers’ Trey Thompkins, Xavier Henry from the Memphis Grizzlies, Addison Reed from the Chicago White Sox, Cesar Ramos from the Tampa Bay Rays, and St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguer Kenny Peoples were part of the mayor’s “dream team” during the day of service this past Wednesday.

imageVolunteers paint mural by the school cafeteria. (Photo: Larry Kahm)

Volunteers painted murals, planted gardens, and repainted the cafeteria, as part of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s efforts to create public-private partnerships to improve the learning conditions of students in low-performing schools.
The event, sponsored by the Partnership of Los Angeles Schools, ended two weeks of improvements and renovations to the school, thanks to the Wasserman Foundation, which donated new trees, a new student entrance, new cafeteria tables, and re-painted columns.

“The Wasserman Foundation’s make-over of Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School shows the real power of a public-private partnership in improving our children’s learning environment and making an immediate and dramatic impact in their lives,” said the mayor in a statement.

L.A. Works also contributed to the school makeover, providing supplies, artists, and guidance. Diamond Landscaping provided discount fees on all landscaping and donated their paving services.

imageStudents celebrate the school improvements.(Photo: Cheryl Rodman)

Housing the homeless in Watts

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News

imageDana Knoll began her day around four a.m. She, and three other volunteers, walked from corner to corner around Watts surveying and interviewing over 165 people living on the streets.

Knoll is working on behalf of 100 Thousand Homes, a national movement to find and house the most vulnerable of America’s homeless.

She is learning about who they are and why they are there. She has candid conversations, gathering information that will position the homeless on a vulnerability index.

The vulnerability index is a tool organizers use to learn about the health conditions of people on the streets.

“If people don’t get off the street, their mortality would be impacted, and so, based on whether they have a chronic condition or a co-occurring disorder–meaning they have substance abuse and or mental health issues–or they’ve been on the street for longer than x number of years, they would then be considered folks, and if they’re willing, and want to get housing, we would try to help get them housed.”

On Friday, 100 thousand homes will identify five to fifteen homeless people in watts who are eligible and willing to receive help. Housing providers in watts will then offer them services that will place them in their new homes.

For the most part, the people Knoll has identified have been receptive to her efforts.

“Sometimes they’re not as forthcoming, but once you start talking to them they open up a little more.”

Among the other criteria, volunteers are also looking to identify people who qualify for government subsidies but may not know it. The problem is, in order to administer a subsidy, candidates must first be identified.

That’s where this campaign comes in, according to Jake Maguire, a representative from 100 Thousand Homes.

“We as a society have made a broad commitment to certain groups of people, like veterans, seniors, people with aids…that we don’t want those people to be experiencing homelessness. It’s important to us as a nation that those people be inside.”

So far, 100 Thousand Homes has housed just shy of eleven thousand people nationwide. Maguire says they are on track to reach 100 thousand by July of 2013. Watts is not alone. Over 100 communities have joined the movement and the number is expected to keep growing.

VIDEO: Think Healthy! comes to 112th Elementary in Watts

Cedars-Sinai’s Couch for Kids came to 112th Street Elementary School in Watts on April 15 to teach kids that healthy living can be fun. All 500 students took part in the fair on the school’s campus.

LAPD officers trade policing for mentoring with PAL program

imageWith the largest housing projects west of the Mississippi and 120 recognized gangs within 10 square miles, the Southeast Division of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is working harder than ever to keep children away from the gang culture.

Officers started a local chapter of the Police Activities League (PAL) in Southeast Los Angeles to provide sports teams, field trips and mentoring opportunities for children exposed to violence and fear on a daily basis.

“The kids [in our division] have a lot of challenges, so it’s hard for them to go outside and play,” said police officer Scott Burkett, one of the officers in charge of the program. “There’s so many negative influences, that a lot of their parents don’t want them to go outside. They are afraid to go outside, to be drafted into a gang or become an accidental victim.”

Because of budget cuts to after-school programs, the activities league offers students a chance to participate in activities outside of school under the watchful eye of an adult. The kids have come to appreciate the support of police officers as their coaches and mentors, but it wasn’t instantaneous.

“Trust is a huge issue. They don’t trust cops so they didn’t trust us at first, but by working with the kids over time you see a change in how they come to open up and trust us, which is great to see. “ Burkett said. The officers of PAL agree that it also helps when they show up in jeans and a police jacket instead of uniforms with cuffs and a gun.

At College Ready Academy High School 11, a weekly hockey program gives the students something to look forward to after school. It also keeps them motivated in class.

“They bring their skates to school and they are so excited,” said Avery Seretan, a ninth grade teacher at College Ready Academy. “One of my students knows he won’t be able to go to hockey practice unless he does his work. Lately, he’s been really on top of his schoolwork so he doesn’t miss out.”

College Ready Academy also worked with PAL to provide incentives for academic improvement. The school recently conducted benchmark tests. Students were told that if their scores went up by 20 percent or more they would earn a field trip to Big Bear. The officers planned for 15 students. Thirty qualified.

Test scores are measurable proof that the league is helping students, but earning their trust and seeing how much the kids look forward to PAL activities are constant motivation, say the officers who facilitate the program. At weekly hockey practices, Officer Derek Kosloski said students channel all of their energy into learning the sport.

“Hockey can be a bit rough and emotions sometimes take over, but when the kids are with us they are perfectly well-behaved. It’s hard to believe it when I hear about some of the kids on our team being suspended for bringing knives to school or fighting,” Kosloski said.

Hockey is popular with the high school students and Kosloski hopes to have enough teams to start a Southeast league. None of the students had ever played hockey before, so lessons started from scratch and the kids soaked it up.

“A lot of them didn’t know how to hold the hockey stick, play left or right-handed and had never seen a live game before we took them to a Kings game,” Kosloski said. “The kids are so excited that when we stop practice they always want to play one more game. They are completely fired up.”

Activities like this are a preventative way for police officers to fight gang recruitment and violence. They see the program as a way of putting money into children before they become gang members instead of spending money and time arresting them later.

Students started participating in activities in the PAL program last December, but the Southeast chapter was officially formed in March 2010. Paperwork and technical issues such as being recognized as a non-profit organization and being recognized by the national PAL organization took almost nine months.

Money for trips like the one to Big Bear comes from fundraisers by the police station and support from businesses such as the Los Angeles Angels, Body Glove and the Salvation Army.

“It’s been a lot of networking and getting out there in the community. We’ve been really lucky, though” said Burkett. The effort is worth introducing the students to places outside the projects, he added.

The Southeast PAL program is still new but is slowly working its way into the community.

“They definitely play a big role here and our kids have really come to look up to them,” Seretan said.

Kosloski maintains that it’s all about teaching the kids with positive reinforcement so “when it comes time to make that tough decision, they’ll make the right one.”

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

More stories about the LAPD in South Los Angeles:

Los Angeles boasts lowest homicide rate in 40 years

Los Angeles Police Department argues nonprofits are better than handouts on Skid Row

P.A.L. program provides afterschool alternatives

Special education teacher finds purpose in Watts

imageAt 22 years old and standing just over five feet, Avery Seretan is sometimes mistaken for a student. She’s actually a ninth-grade special education teacher in Watts. And depending on the day, she’s also a mother, confidant, guardian and referee for her students.

Today is a “good day” at the charter school College Ready Academy High School #11. As students yell out questions, Seretan patiently reminded them to raise their hand, and when they do, she answered their queries. Some of the questions were about the English lesson, but for the most part students wanted personal details about their teacher.

“Miss, are you married?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Miss, do you have a boyfriend yet?”

“Yes,” Seretan said, and after that admission, she quickly scolded her students to pay attention to their lessons before they could ask any more questions. Later, she laughed as she explained some of the more personal questions her students have asked.

“They are in ninth grade, so they know about sex and drugs and, in some ways, have a broader life experience than myself,” Seretan said. “But I still see them as my kids and when they ask those questions I’m like that’s totally inappropriate. I immediately change the subject.”

Teaching ninth graders at a charter school in Watts isn’t always funny questions and laughter. Each day, Seretan deals with the pressure of helping her students succeed in a neighborhood affected by gang violence and crime. She works as a special education teacher, helping special needs students with English and math.

Some students have learning disabilities, reading and writing at a second grade level. Others have behavioral disorders that have led to violence in the classroom.

“They all have different personalities and tick in different ways and you have to respond to them very differently,” Seretan said.

Working for a charter school in South Los Angeles isn’t what Avery imagined as her first job after college. A year ago, Seretan said her plan was to graduate, travel and eventually move to Washington to pursue a job in politics.

“I definitely don’t see myself teaching, but I always saw myself doing some type of community work to give back in some way,” Seretan said.

Born and raised in Seal Beach, Seretan was educated in private schools most of her life. She went to a private middle school and all-girls, Catholic high school before attending the private University of San Diego. She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science, but decided she wanted to give something of her time and self before pursuing her dreams in Washington, D.C.

As a senior, Seretan was recruited for the Teach for America program. Teach for America has a reputation as a competitive and extremely demanding program. It was a challenge Seretan couldn’t resist.
She applied and was accepted to teach in Los Angeles. Seretan said it is her biggest achievement so far.

“I’ll never forget that it was Nov. 10 and I got an email from [Teach for America] saying I was accepted and I was so excited,” she said.

With one semester of teaching under her belt, Seretan is confident in her teaching and her students. She said the first semester was difficult and things can only improve in the future.

She still plans to travel and live in Washington, but now they come second to the hopes she has for herself and her students while teaching.

“For me, I want to be content and happy with what I’m doing and then push these kids forward,” she said. “They have no options, they need to focus and get out of Watts. I want to get my kids out of Watts and have a better life.”

Until then, she says Washington can wait.

Watts Towers Art Center faces privatization

The Watts Towers art installation is the largest single entity ever built by one man.

Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, started building the towers in 1921. He spent 33 years constructing a giant mosaic structure built of seashells, broken bottles, ceramic pottery and tiles, a rare piece of hand painted Canton ware and numerous pieces of 20th century American ceramics.

The towers have become a symbol of Watts’ community and culture.

The City of Los Angeles placed the Watts Towers Art Center on a list for privatization, due to major budget cut backs, said James Janisse, an employee of the Watts Towers Art Center. The Watts Towers Art Center petitioned the city to remain a public domain.

The art center has been removed from the list of privatization for one fiscal year said Rosie Lee Hooks, the director of the Watts Towers Art Center, in a recent article by Our Weekly.

In this slideshow, Janisse speaks about the purpose of their petition and the importance of the Watts Towers Arts Center to the South Los Angeles community.

Mama Hill helps combat gang recruitment

Southern California’s new initiative to fight youth gang recruitment began in May, but some people don’t think it’s strong enough to tackle the gang problem.

This video is the story of one woman who took matters into her own hands.