Tucked in the corner of a grimy East Hollywood strip mall is a shining hope of public education.
Or so U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday in an event that showcased a comprehensive program to boost academic achievement by supporting students and their families with job training, health services, after-school tutoring and other help.
The program is a collaboration of Los Angeles public and private partners led by the Youth Policy Institute, which received a $30-million federal grant in 2012 to launch the initiative in the high-poverty neighborhoods of East Hollywood and Pacoima.
"This is remarkable leadership in action," Duncan said at the Hollywood FamilySource Center, his first stop in a daylong visit to Los Angeles. "If you guys can … lift young people and families out of poverty and help them be successful, that is a national model."
Duncan said the Obama administration was betting big on the concept, with a request to boost funding for Promise Neighborhoods by 76% to $100 million in the next fiscal year. So far, federal officials have awarded $210 million through 60 grants serving 50 communities across the United States, but the need is far greater, Duncan said. Federal officials have received more than 500 applications.
"We'll fund as many communities as we have dollars available," said Duncan, who appeared with L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.
He added that he constantly fights assertions that impoverished children cannot succeed, and said that giving them the intensive academic support, enrichment activities and social services common among their more affluent peers will prove otherwise.
"This community and these young people are going to help prove to the country what children who weren't born with a silver spoon in their mouth can do if we give them opportunities," Duncan said. "If we want to close the achievement gap, we need to close the opportunity gap."
That work is actively underway at the East Hollywood family center. In one classroom, several adults were learning how to use computers. In another, immigrants from Thailand, Bangladesh, Senegal, Mexico, El Salvador and a host of other countries were puzzling over English nouns. Across the lobby, students who left regular high schools and were living in temporary housing were taking their high school exit exam.
A colorful room equipped with art supplies, alphabet charts and other learning tools offers parents a safe place for their children while they master skills for better jobs. The center also offers classes on effective parenting, financial literacy, nutrition and other topics.
Laura Lorenzo said the center staff has taught her two children, ages 6 and 4, English, shapes, colors and numbers while she works to earn her high school equivalency degree.
Abuna Hernandez, an 11th-grade student in the center's alternative academic program, said the staff has supported her with tutoring and motivated her to study after she struggled in traditional high schools.
The center has "really opened my eyes to see that no matter where you came from, just never give up," she said.
Services are funded not only by the federal grant but also by the city and L.A. Unified. The school district provides English teachers, psychiatric social workers and attendance specialists. Los Angeles Board of Education member Steve Zimmer, who led the move to place the center in East Hollywood at Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue, has an office there.
"This is the best thing I've seen so far" to level the playing field for low-income children, Zimmer said.
Duncan hailed the cross-agency collaboration, saying that it was the only way to effectively support children from birth through college into careers. In addition to five local centers, the federal grant has helped the institute bring comprehensive services to 18,000 students at 18 schools in Pacoima and East Hollywood.
"We plan to lead the nation and show the way on how this new war on poverty can work," said Dixon Slingerland, the institute's executive director.