Afterschool programs teach students tech as LAUSD restructures

When Jonathan Marcelino’s parents told him he could either own a computer or a cell phone, the decision was not difficult for the 17-year-old to make.

As the eldest of four children born to Mexican immigrants living on a tight budget in Nickerson Gardens, a Watts public housing project, Marcelino knew that although he would have liked to have a phone to regularly text friends, a computer would be more productive.

“Regardless of where I go, I want to study computer science,” he said. “I want to do cool stuff, make money and then do a nonprofit. That’s why you don’t see me running with a phone.”

The lack of exposure to technology and its practical applications in daily life is a reality many students living in and around South Los Angeles face, Marcelino said.

[Read more…]

Coding boot camps emerging as supplement to traditional tech instruction

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Gregorio Rojas stands with his most recent cohort of students who participated in his coding boot camp. | Photo courtesy of Gregorio Rojas

Coding boot camps, long on the fringe of traditional education spheres, are pushing their way into national conversation of how to attract more Americans into the STEM fields.

These boot camps, a product of the technology boom, are technical training programs designed to expose novice students to the most important aspects of the coding and web development field while guiding them to become innovators. Oftentimes boot camps lead students into jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries.

Last month, the Department of Education rolled out its pilot program, EQUIP. The program, which is now open for application, allows colleges and universities to partner with non-traditional education models like boot camps, and gives students access to federal financial aid.

EQUIP is part of a growing initiative to help underwrite the cost of attending satellite programs that train students in career fields the country needs–particularly in the STEM fields in which the Obama Administration has encouraged more growth.

Yet, the concept of the recent policies supporting coding boot camps is not new in South Los Angeles. EQUIP would be supporting an educational model that has already taken root in the area, some educators say.

A few years ago, Gregorio Rojas and his wife founded Sabio, a startup focused on providing software development training to women and minorities. At Sabio, students spend 6 to 12 weekends in intensive programs learning to code, develop software and hone technical skills. At the end they hold the promise of standing on their own in the competitive STEM industries.

“One reason I do this is because I pretty much learned this way,” Rojas said of the boot camps. “It’s hands on, on the job, intense and very focused. I got into the industry right before the dot-com bubble burst. These skills facilitated my own entry.”

His coding boot camp is based in Culver City, but Rojas said many of his students have ties to the South L.A. community.

At boot camps, students spend hours learning code language — not from a book, but by implementation. The experience is intense, but the success of the methodology is proved each time Rojas’ students walk away with a firm grasp of the material and are later gainfully employed. Many times, students participate in hackathons, holding their own against competition.

Gregorio Rojas (left) celebrated the launch of two of his students' apps to the Apple Store.

Gregorio Rojas (left) celebrated the launch of two of his students’ apps to the Apple Store. | Photo courtesy of Gregorio Rojas

Recently Rojas celebrated the launch of two students’ app now featured in the Apple Store. Both creators of the app had been in two wildly different fields before the coding boot camp; one was a Spanish professor and the other was working in the financing world. At Sabio, the average student is a 30-year-old, according to its founders.

In the basement of South LA’s Southside Church of Christ, Chris Baccus also runs a coding boot camp — this one aimed at middle schoolers. Baccus, executive director of Concerned Citizens Community Involvement, helps run the camp on Saturdays. In one year, seventy students have gone through the non-profit’s Limitless STEM Academy.

The wide range of participant ages for the coding boot camps in South Los Angeles show the demand for alternative education models. Generally the camps are also less expensive options when compared to the norm.

At Sabio, a three-month program costs $13,450 though it is set to increase 7 percent to $14,450 in 2016.

Comparably, the estimated yearly cost for attending the University of Southern California, a four-year semi-private institution is $67,212, while the all-expense-covered yearly tuition for a University of California school is $33,600 for in-state residents. At a California State University such as Cal State LA, to receive a computer science degree, students would pay around $32,240. Most students would quadruple these costs during the four-year pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

For an associate’s degree in computer information systems at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, California residents pay around $2,070.

Baccus’ Limitless STEM Academy held on Manchester Avenue and Harvard Boulevard is free of charge for the middle school students.

Rojas sees EQUIP as a federal commitment to embracing more innovative styles of teaching and a sign that this type of instruction is working.

“People are going to start waking up and realize that what they do is not traditional but it’s theory,” Rojas said. “Those institutions want to tap into these resources and bring them into the fold. These are conversations that have been happening for at least a year now.”

Boot camp organizers said they not only see such programs as great supplements to educational systems for their students, but in some cases their curricula can help drive STEM instruction in the traditional classrooms.

Read More: Teens Exploring Technology celebrates grand opening of community space

Baccus pointed to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has been struggling to integrate emerging technology into its curriculum.

“I’ve worked at LAUSD for 17 years so I understand the challenge that some of our schools have in implementing innovative programs because everything is all-around taught to a test,” Baccus said.

Not discouraged, Baccus said he’s looking to spread his program into Inglewood and Compton to reach more students.

“In the future we want our students to be able to be problem solvers because that skill never grows old,” he said. “As technology advances, it just becomes an easier way to solve a problem and if you can, then you’ll always have a job. You don’t wait, you create your own opportunity.”

Baccus has talked to academics at traditional colleges who have requested his help trying to integrate structures like that of Limitless STEM Academy into their classroom. One philosophy the boot camps have integrated is the dedication to serving underrepresented communities, such as women, African American and Latino populations. They’re helping to facilitate the next generation of minority students entering the tech field.  

“[At Sabio] you have a Latino immigrant and Latina CEO coming out here and running things,” Rojas, who is a Colombian immigrant, said. “I don’t think you’re going to find something else like this.”

Rojas’ wife and Sabio co-founder, Liliana Monge, is Mexican and grew up in South Gate. Baccus also said he believed his students seeing other people of color working in tech encourage them to continue breaking into the ever-changing industry.

“The more qualifiers you have, the easier it is for minorities to sit at the table with people who may be unfortunately less qualified, but may have a network that allows them to get opportunities that we traditionally have been left out of, especially in STEM and technology and computers,” Baccus said. “Any more ammunition they get to put in their toolbox is absolutely great.”

Diversity, however, is not just essential in South Los Angeles. Diversifying the industry overall breeds better innovations in the field.

“Coding software development is supposed to be one of the leading innovative industries in the world – in the planet really, but by design for a bunch of different factors is the least innovative group out there,” Rojas said. “We don’t have enough women and people of color in the room to challenge the other folk in the room.”

Baccus hopes that the progress in terms diversity and technology will continue to take root, and eventually become a requirement for younger students.

“I would love to see [EQUIP] interfused with the curriculum for students even before high school to give them the skills they would need,” Baccus said. “Help them do that self-discovery before they get into those pathway programs.”


Manipulating the magnets

Mid-City's Prescott School of Enriched Sciences is the only school that feeds directly into the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. LACES is one of the top schools in the state. | Caitlyn Hynes, Intersections South L.A.

Mid-City’s Prescott School of Enriched Sciences is the only school that feeds directly into the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. LACES is one of the top schools in the state. | Caitlyn Hynes, Intersections South L.A.

Four weeks into the school year, Ellen Hume got the call she had hoped wouldn’t come. Her daughter Elena, 10, had been taken off the waitlist and accepted into Mid-City’s Prescott School of Enriched Sciences.

Like many parents in the Los Angeles area, Hume had been applying for magnet schools since her daughter was in second grade. When Hume received the call, she was happy with Elena’s then-current elementary school, Synergy Charter Academy, and didn’t necessarily want her child to go to Mid-City.

Yet, for Hume and many other parents, the appeal of Mid-City is not Mid-City itself, but the fact that it is the only direct feeder school for the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.

LACES, as it is better known, is the highest ranked school within the Los Angeles Unified School District according to U.S. News and World Report. In 2015, the school had 3,247 applications for 224 open spots. That admission rate is less than 7 percent—more selective than UCLA that same year.

To ensure a child’s admission into LACES, some parents have decided to apply to Mid-City in their child’s later elementary school years. Their year at Mid-City is simply a means to an end, something 10-year-old Elena herself is aware of.

“I think it will be worth it to switch from Synergy to Mid-City to get into LACES. If I had a choice I would choose Synergy and LACES but I know that’s kind of impossible,” she said.

Phil Placenti, who must weigh the educational future of his two daughters, said the reliability and success of LACES are what has drawn their family to the school.

“It has an established school culture that is healthy, it offers a wide range of classes and clubs, and impressive numbers of LACES students go to good colleges,” Placenti said. “LACES isn’t perfect, but it is consistently strong, and has been for a long time.”

LACES also offers sixth through 12th grade, meaning if a child gets in as a sixth grader, the parents no longer have to play the magnet points game.

The fact that Mid-City offers families the chance to matriculate directly into LACES, a solid, steady and reliable school, means that parents whose children have been offered admission into Mid-City have to carefully weigh their options.

If they accept, children may be attending a lower-performing school in a far-away neighborhood. If they decline, they will lose all of their magnet points – a disaster for upper-elementary school students preparing for the middle school magnet application process.

“It’s the only system where you’re applying, and find yourself hoping you don’t get accepted,” said Jolene Hjerleid, whose daughter was accepted to Mid-City in 2012 and is now an eighth grader at LACES.

Hume eventually decided to send Elena to Mid-City. because doing so would set her up for the next six years of her academic career.

Read More: Los Angeles magnet school shows off successful STEM and AP program

“Even though we loved Synergy, Mid-City is a feeder school for LACES,” said Hume. “We decided to send her to Mid-City for one year because she would be set up for the rest of junior high and high school.”

Amy Levinson also saw Mid-City as merely a stepping stone to LACES. When her son was accepted into the elementary school the day before starting fifth grade, she decided to take the spot to guarantee his place at LACES.

“We agreed within the day that we were going to do it because it would solve the middle school and high school problem. So it was worth it for him to have upheaval for a year. But he was leaving his school again, where he was thriving,” Levinson said.

The magnet points system and lack of streamlined school experience in LAUSD means that parents are constantly thinking ahead and planning for the future.

“I don’t know how often I’m in conversations with people at parties or whatever and we’re always asking about, ‘Where does your kid go to school? How’d they get there? What are you going to do next year?,” Hjerleid said. “There’s not a logical place for the kids to feed into next year.”

magnetinfographicThe stakes for magnet points got higher in 2011 when LACES officials made Mid-City their only feeder school. The decision meant that parents didn’t have to rely solely on one application year, but could automatically matriculate to LACES if they went to Mid-City. Students are also significantly more likely to get into Mid-City. Last year they had 189 applications for 61 spots, and a 32 percent acceptance rate—more than four times as high as LACES

Hjerleid‘s daughter was in  one of the first classes at Mid-City to be directly admitted to LACES. When the change was announced, she says there was some backlash among parents.

“Everyone was a little surprised when Mid-City was chosen as a feeder school. I think people were like,  why is this little unknown elementary school being chosen for the magnet?” she said.

LAUSD was unavailable for comment on why Mid-City was chosen as the sole feeder school for this article.

Though Mid-City has consistently improved its API score over the past five years, rising from 761 in 2008 to 801 in 2013, only 51.9 percent of students were at or above proficient in English, and 57.2 percent in math, according to its 2013 Adequate Yearly Progress report.

In contrast, Synergy Charter Academy, where Hume’s daughter Elena attended from kindergarten to fourth grade, had an API of 907 with 75 percent of students proficient in English and 88.9 percent in math.

When Hjerleid and her husband decided to transfer their daughter to Mid-City in 2012, they left West Hollywood Elementary School, which had a 932 API score that year and an 83.5 percent proficiency in English and 85 percent proficiency rate in math.

The qualitative aspects such as Mid-City’s disorganization and lack of academic rigor, however, are what the parents interviewed focused on.

Levinson, whose son also spent a few years at West Hollywood, was disappointed with Mid-City’s academic standards.

“It felt like he was taking a huge step back academically. The math was not hard for him. He didn’t have vocabulary all year,” said Levinson. “Just things that felt like they were a given; like vocabulary and spelling tests. I felt like his preparation [for LACES] came at West Hollywood.”

Hjerleid and her husband also wondered if it would be worth it to transfer to Mid-City. The academic expectations, she said, were not as high as she believed were necessary. “And that was disappointing, but we were prepared for it,” she said.

Hjerleid and Hume both confirmed that they accepted their spot at Mid-City not because they felt it would be academically challenging for their children, but because they knew if they did not accept, they risked losing their chance at LACES permanently.

Read More: Crenshaw High’s magnet conversion and Baldwin Hills families

Placentis’ oldest daughter Analisa is a sixth grader at LACES, despite the fact that she didn’t get into Mid-City last year. When Analisa was put on Mid-City’s waiting list, he said  it was a relief. But she was admitted into LACES this year with 16 magnet points, which is generally agreed to be the minimum number of points for LACES.

Nevertheless, the Placentis understood how hard the decision would be.

“Going to a school like Mid-City for a year or two in order to know that your child will have a solid middle school option can be a difficult thing to pass up. For our older daughter, we applied for a spot at Mid-City and prayed she wouldn’t get it,” said Placenti.

Hjerleid says they wouldn’t have changed anything regarding the decision they made for their daughter’s education.

“We also thought our daughter was the kind of student and personality that could weather that pretty well and maintain a sense of academic rigor and studying and all of that even if the expectations were lower than where she had come from,” said Hjerleid.

Despite the different academic expectations, some parents believe that one-year at Mid-City will be regained in value many times over while attending LACES.

Hjerleid summed it up: “Now we’re done, basically. . . it feels great to know that they’re both there at LACES, sixth through 12th grade. Now we just need to worry about college applications in three or four years.”

USC professors draw parallels between past racial issues and current events

The USC Speakers Committee holds talks throughout the year related to topical issues.

The USC Speakers Committee holds talks throughout the year related to topical issues.

A stream of videos depicting police brutality continued conversation over current relations between the police and communities of color at USC.

An event titled “Trending Topics: Police Brutality,” held at the University Park campus, highlighted how excessive force caught on tape has kept these events in the news.

A New York Times’ video compilation of the most well-known instances of police brutality caught on mobile phone cameras in this past year was shown to the 35 USC students. USC’s Speaker Committee and Black Student Assembly hosted the on-campus event.

The mostly full room was filled with tudents, many of whom weren’t born when the 1991 video of Rodney King’s beating was captured on tape.

Many analysts mark that video as the beginning of of police brutality being recorded. In the Rodney King video tape, taken by witness George Holliday from his balcony, a group of four LAPD officers is shown continuously kicking King and beating him with batons. Their acquittal is generally believed to have incited the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Moderator Jody Armour, a professor at the USC Gould School of Law, said this fact has been taken for granted. Though the King beating occurred 24 years ago, he said, it remains in the forefront of people’s mind.

“It was the first time you have a video tape spark this kind of prosecution. Now we take it for granted,” Armour said.

The other moderator Judy Muller, a USC journalism professor who covered the Rodney King trial almost 25 years ago, said incidences of police brutality continue to be on the public’s radar because of the rise of technology.

“We are in a major communications revolution,” Muller said. “This makes everyone with a phone a journalist.”

Armour contested the idea that police brutality is not a wide scale issue. He said a faction of people feel that police violence is not an issue because “blacks kill more blacks than police ever could.” But Armour said the difference between black-on-black crime and police brutality is that officers have a responsibility to protect the people and not do harm.

Muller reached back into history to show the different reactions to news events by playing a clip of groups of white people and groups of black people watching the outcome of the 1995 OJ Simpson case. Where black people were overjoyed, white people held expressions of discontent. The professor said this clip showed the disparity between the “racial perceptions of police.” She says white people see the police as serving justice whereas black people feel threatened by police.

She says the rise of social media and the prevalence of unedited videos of the events still elicits different perceptions of events from racial groups, contrary to what one would expect.

These racial perceptions likely reflect the phenomena of mass incarceration, the moderators said. Mass incarceration is the increased rate in imprisonment of black people in the U.S. since the 1980s as a result of strict drug laws with unintended racial implications. According to Pew Research Center, in 1980 10% of black men aged 20 to 29 without a high school diploma were in prison, where that had raised to 26% by 2010. This is compared with the statistic that in 1980 only 4% of white men aged 20 to 29 without high school diplomas were in prison and this raised to 7% by 2010.

He stated a main issue in the criminal justice system is that Americans have been conditioned not to “view criminals through a lens of human frailty,” but rather, with a sense of hard justice.

When the floor was opened for questions, one student called attention immediately to the fact that the audience did not in any way reflect the demographics of USC. One black person commented “props to the three white people here” and she claimed that the issue of police brutality for many can be a She wondered what students can do to keep the conversation about police brutality going.

Another student said for her, when she is the only person of color, discussions can be “emotionally exhausting.”

Muller told students that they had to be unafraid and bring their concerns up in the classrooms.

Event coordinators said this was one of many goals for the event and they hoped it raised awareness that creates dialogue between students and experts.

Armour and Muller said there are current movements that are helping to expand the dialogue. They specifically highlighted the social movement of #Blacklivesmatter, having the potential to make changes in America.

#Blacklivesmatter is a movement with roots in social media that aims to put an end to stereotyped views of black people as dangerous based on their skin color.

But, “We’re not there yet,” Muller said. “We still react from our racial backgrounds…How many video tapes we have to view before that changes?”


Grant allocates $25,000 to promote child nutrition

Council member Curren Price speaks with a student at West Vernon Elementary School at the launch of their grant bid.

Council member Curren Price speaks with a student at West Vernon Elementary School, which is launching a grant bid. | Photo by Matt Lemas

West Vernon Elementary School in South Los Angeles is vying to be a recipient of a $500,000 national grant program to fund improvements in children’s health and nutrition. The initiative was launched at the school this week.

The initiative, a collaboration between the United Health Foundation and Whole Kids Foundation, has earmarked $25,000 for the Central and South Central region of Los Angeles.

Elementary schools throughout the country will be able to apply for funding, ranging from $15,000 to $25,000, and the application consists of pitching innovative projects in line with the grant’s goals. West Vernon is an applicant and if chosen, it will be one of 10 to 12 schools participating in the program nationwide.

“We’re breaking through the cycle of unhealthy living,” said Councilman Curren Price at Thursday’s launch, referencing that the grant could join a long list of initiatives his office has taken to improve access to nutrition and green space in his district. “When our kids are happy and healthy, our future is bright.”

[Read more…]

L.A. Clippers and City Year invest $3 million in Watts’ elementary schools

Mayor Eric Garcetti leading the City Year Corps pledge with its Los Angeles members behind him.

Mayor Eric Garcetti leads the City Year Corps pledge. | Photo by Malina Brown

The City Year Los Angeles Corps, whose members spend 11 months teaching in schools within high-poverty communities, marked the beginning of service for its new members by lining up the usual roster: fresh-faced young Corps members, their families and city officials.

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South LA teacher earns national acclaim for ethnic studies advocacy

The push to make ethnic studies a staple within the California education system received nationwide attention when a South Los Angeles teacher was named the National Education Association’s Social Justice Activist of the Year.

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Teaching to avoid riots

This article was produced for Watts Revisited, a multimedia project launched by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism that explores challenges facing South L.A. as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots. Learn more at

Jay Davis stands in front of his class at Augustus Hawkins High School. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

Jay Davis stands in front of his class at Augustus Hawkins High School. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

When Jay Davis talks to his students about the 1965 riots, which broke out all around his South L.A. campus, he wants to make sure it is not just a history lesson. Instead, he pushes his students to use the images to talk about the history, understand the factors that provoked rioting and decide what role they would play in history. [Read more…]

Latino families transition from unemployment to work


Araceli Martínez Ortega | La Opinión (text)
Brian Watt | KPCC (audio)
Maya Sugarman | KPCC (photo)

This story is available in Spanish here.

This article was produced for Watts Revisited, a multimedia project launched by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism that explores challenges facing South L.A. as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots. Learn more at

David Williams, who works at Homeboy Industries, fills out paperwork to enroll in a seven-week construction course at Los Angeles Trade Tech College on Monday, April 1, 2015. The class is put on by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in partnership with LATTC. | Photo by Maya Sugarman for KPCC

David Williams, who works at Homeboy Industries, fills out paperwork to enroll in a seven-week construction course at Los Angeles Trade Tech College on Monday, April 1, 2015. The class is put on by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in partnership with LATTC. | Photo by Maya Sugarman for KPCC

Last September, Abigail Flores arrived heartsick at the WorkSource Center, a work placement agency in South Central Los Angeles. She had spent at least seven months unemployed, depending upon public assistance to support her three young children.

“What I encountered here was beautiful. They helped me in everything. The work that they found for me was at a Dollar Tree shop. Then the hours were decreased. Once again they found me another job in a hamburger restaurant where I made minimum wage,” said Flores, a resident of South Los Angeles and a 34-year-old single mother. Her children are 6, 7, and 14 years old.

At the same time that Flores returned to the labor force, and to be able to provide for her family, the WorkSource Center, located inside LA Trade Tech College at Vernon-Central, began to provide her with training in the hotel industry.

With these new skills, Abigail will be able to make a transition to full-time work with a better salary and benefits. [Read more…]

South LA schools follow state-wide graduation trends

Crenshaw HS

Crenshaw High School

Nearly a dozen South L.A. high schools have followed a positive statewide trend of rising graduation rates while simultaneously lowering the percentage of dropouts, according to data from the California Department of Education.

Schools with the highest graduation rates for the 2013-14 school year include Thirty-Second Street USC Performing Arts with a 100 percent graduation rate; Foshay Learning Center and Middle College High, each with 99 percent; King/Drew Medical Magnet with 96 percent and the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies with 95 percent.

Of the South L.A. high schools, even those with the lowest percentage of graduates recorded graduation rates that were only 10 percent below the LAUSD district-wide graduation rate of 70.4 percent, with a majority of them on an upward trend. [Read more…]