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It’s a first: An LAUSD school is the top feeder to USC’s freshman class, thanks to a neighborhood academic enrichment program

Craig Clough | September 28, 2016

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Students Lily Diaz, left, Mauricio Garcia and Stephanie Cuevas at the Neighborhood Academic Initiative Gala at USC, Thursday, May 6, 2016. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker)

Students Lily Diaz, left, Mauricio Garcia and Stephanie Cuevas at the Neighborhood Academic Initiative gala at USC in May. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker)

For the first time, there will be more students from an LA Unified high school in USC’s freshman class than from any other, the university announced Wednesday. Thanks to a long-running special program, the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), 19 of the university’s incoming class this year are from the Foshay Learning Center, which is near USC.

The great majority of the students in NAI are minorities and from low-income households, and the program has existed as a partnership between USC and LA Unified since the 1991-92 school year. Through the program, students from the surrounding neighborhoods near USC are given enrichment opportunities, guidance, counseling and education with the goal of helping them get accepted to college. Students who are accepted to USC get a full-ride scholarship minus loans.

Students begin the program in the 6th grade and attend all through high school. During the middle school years, the students come to USC on Saturdays to hear guest speakers, take classes and receive information about college. When high school begins in the 9th grade, the students attend English and math classes every morning at USC before going to their other classes at Foshay or two high schools in East LA. They also take summer school courses and attend on Saturdays.

Since 1997, 99 percent of students who participate in NAI have been accepted to college.

“We see them come in babies — ‘This is kind of a fun thing, I’m on a college campus and I’m just in the 6th grade. I just left the bosom of my 5th-grade teacher,’ — to graduating with a list of colleges that they have been accepted to. So NAI changes the question from am I going to college, or can I go to college, to which college am I going to,” said Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of USC Educational Partnerships, which oversees NAI.

Foshay has a little under 2,000 students, and about 700 of them are part of NAI. Several years ago the program also started serving students from the East LA area in the schools of El Sereno Middle SchoolNightingale Middle SchoolLincoln High School and Wilson High School.

What is impressive about Foshay leading the USC freshman class in acceptance is that it beat out many other private schools like Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City or The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks where many of the students come from privileged, elite backgrounds.

Few students from those schools have the background of Stephanie Cuevas, a USC freshman who attended Foshay and came through the NAI program. Cuevas lived in a one-bedroom apartment with eight relatives and slept in the living room with three siblings, her mom and stepdad. Her mom wasn’t working at the time, and her stepdad worked at a KFC restaurant. When she was in the 5th grade, some representatives from the NAI program visited her elementary school and gave a presentation. She said she was immediately interested in the program.

“I knew I had to go to college. I didn’t want to end up living the way my parents lived,” Cuevas said.

Cuevas also said she realized how far ahead she was of other students at Foshay who weren’t involved in the program when it came time to apply to college.

“My cousin at Foshay, she didn’t know the deadlines or about the SATs and what to score to get to what college. She didn’t know her A-G requirements and what she had to take and what she shouldn’t have taken,” she said. “But at NAI they said, ‘Take this course,’ and they gave us everything you have to do. They handed everything to us and said, ‘Just do it.’ They handed us the plan, and all we had to do was do it.”

NAI’s budget this year is around $1.3 million, Thomas-Barrios said, and is funded directly by USC and corporate and private donors, including NAI alumni. Representatives of the program visit the area’s elementary schools and encourage students to apply for the program. She said they look for students who aren’t yet high-achieving.

“We are of the mind and always have been that those students who are doing really, really well are going to be captured into college access pathways. The students who are doing OK, with C+ average, they could go either way if they are pushed, and they can be put into that pathway, so those are the kids we are looking for,” she said. “So we capture their imagination and the imagination of their parents and say, ‘Let’s try this thing.'”

On Saturdays, the students’ parents are encouraged to attend and take part in the Family Development Institute, which gives them information on college and tips on how to help their child’s academic growth.

“Some of our Latino families will take the entire family to their country of origin for a long period to visit family who are ill or who have passed, and so everyone goes. For a child who is a senior and taking AP calculus, a month is a long time to be away,” Thomas-Barrios said. “So (the Family Development Institute) understands that and will make alternate arrangements for the child.”

USC also announced Wednesday that the freshman class is the highest-achieving it has ever enrolled, and also one of the largest and most ethnically diverse ever. The 3,068 freshmen make up the fifth-largest freshman class in USC’s 136-year history, with 9,023, or 16.6 percent, of the 54,282 applicants offered admission. Their average, unweighted GPA is 3.75, or 4.07 if weighted. Twenty percent had earned straight As in high school. Another 7 percent earned only one B in high school. 

Twenty-four percent of the freshmen come from underrepresented ethnic groups; 1 in 8 are the first in their families to attend college. Forty-one percent are white, 20 percent are Asian or Asian American, 14 percent are international students, 13 percent are Latino, and 5 percent are African American.

“We have made a strong effort to recruit students from a range of backgrounds to USC this fall,” Provost Michael Quick said in a statement. “They are the first in their families to attend college, transfer students from community colleges and high-performing graduates from a variety of public and private high schools across the nation and the world. We are pleased to have had such an impressive pool of applicants from which to select our vibrant freshman class.”

*Dark green denotes traditional public schools. Orange denotes private schools. Orange County HS of the Arts is a public charter school and Troy HS in Fullerton is a public magnet school.

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