Middle-schoolers paired with companies for real-world lessons

During apprenticeships, students' schools offer lessons to buttress those they're learning on the job

In the crowded exhibit space, where everyone's talking at once, the Web designer is eager to make her pitch.

Litzully Cota's got her patter down — and she's delivering in a voice clear and loud enough to be heard.

"My friend got bullied," she says, explaining the inspiration for her online community: Be You and Let Me Be Me. The site offers a supportive environment to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

To her, it's personal.

Here, she says, take my business card. It's got the Web address.

As she hands one over, she reveals arms covered with hand-drawn hearts and names written in green felt-tip pen.

Litzully is 13, an eighth-grader at Bethune Middle School in L.A.'s Florence neighborhood. For 10 weeks, every Thursday afternoon, she's also been an apprentice at Cornerstone OnDemand in Santa Monica, where she's built her website with her mentor, Isadora Dantas, a 28-year-old product designer.

Now on Discovery Night — held at Dodger Stadium — she's one of more than 250 middle-school-age kids from seven different schools eating free hot dogs and popcorn and showing off the work they've done.

The apprenticeship projects are displayed on poster boards: An off-road fire truck. A home for members of the British boy band One Direction. A Las Vegas hotel with a casino on the roof. A travel pack that a dog can wear on its back when out hiking with its people.

Middle-schoolers and companies were paired up through a nonprofit called Spark, which aims to help students in communities where dropout rates are high see a connection between what they learn in class and the careers they might one day want to have out in the world. During the apprenticeships, their schools offer lessons to buttress those they're learning on the job.

"Isa taught me about Photoshop and Illustrator," Litzully says. "I also learned time management 'cause I had homework to do too."

At school, Litzully says, she gets A's and Cs. She wants to be a surgeon or lawyer, so she needs to ditch the low grades.

Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters have come to see the displays, as well as the short films produced by those who apprenticed at entertainment companies.

Guests circulate and ask the kids questions, because the apprenticeships — in addition to forging real-world connections — also are about building poise and self-confidence and getting some practice in public speaking.

Jeremiah Murphy, 13, puts out his hand for a shake as he stands next to a laptop displaying his new video game.

It's called "Boom Shoot."

On his poster-board display he's placed a photo of the Frank Gehry-designed building in Venice, shaped like a pair of giant binoculars, where he's been doing his apprenticeship at Google. He's got a wide grin that shows off most of his top teeth. He's excited to talk about his game. He says he's wanted to be a game designer since he was 5.

Jeremiah, another Bethune eighth-grader, drew the images for the game. He also learned how to work with the computer programming language called Python. "The coding we used, it took a little math and critical thinking," he says. "It takes a while, but you get the hang of it."

There are so many projects it's hard to take them all in.

Isaih Vallejo, 12, of Clinton Middle School in downtown L.A., calls his Isaih's City.

He created it at the giant architecture company Gensler, going to its offices at City National Plaza. It was his first time being high up in a skyscraper, he says. One day, he hopes to run his own computer company, "like Apple or Microsoft."

Together with mentor Gil Castellon, Isaih disassembled a computer and examined each of its parts. Then they reimagined the hardware as key structures in a city. They decided, for instance, that the central processing unit would be City Hall.

They talked about cities, what structures they needed to have and where best to put them — where the airport should be, for instance, in relation to the freeway.

Then they mapped out their city and used 3-D-modeling software to bring it to life on a computer screen.

That's all pretty technical, but they also did other kinds of work. Isaih arrived shy. Castellon, 24, taught him how to say hello to strangers and shake their hands firmly.

"In the end, he made a lot of friends, and we're really going to miss him," Castellon said.

He handed his young protege a card, signed by all his friends at the office.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com
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