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Raising Grades : 4-H Clubs Take an Urban Route to Focus on Education Instead of Agriculture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the past they raised hogs, sheep and corn.

These days kids in the hottest 4-H project in Los Angeles are trying to raise grades.

They are members of innovative after-school education clubs that aim to plant the seeds of scholarship among inner-city youngsters.

Started here eight years ago, the clubs are spreading across the country and breathing new life into the venerable children’s agriculture organization known to generations of Americans for its county fair livestock exhibits and for its four-leaf-clover symbol that seems to be attached to farm fences everywhere.

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The program is growing so fast that nearly as many Los Angeles County children participate in after-school clubs as in all of 4-H’s more traditional activities combined in the county.

In the process, the program could add a fifth H to 4-H’s famed “head, heart, hands and health” motto: housing project.

The after-school club got its start in 1988 at the Dana Strand housing complex in Wilmington. Beginning with a handful of youngsters, 4-H advisor John Pusey designed a program that mixed homework, crafts and exercise for children 7 to 13.

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Surprisingly, officials found that the urban blend fit nicely into what they call the “time-honored fundamentals” of 4-H--personalized “learn-by-doing” projects, community service, nutrition and fitness activities.

The goal then was not to boost membership, said George Rendell, 4-H director for Los Angeles County. The idea instead, he said, was to find a way to introduce 4-H to the inner city--where Pusey had previously worked on another agency’s garden plot project.

“In the past, we could have acknowledged that 4-H was primarily of benefit to rural and suburban youth,” Rendell said. “Now, we’d like to make it available to all.”

An infusion of new members was not an unwelcome thing to local 4-H leaders. They had watched for decades as farmland around Los Angeles began sprouting apartments, strip malls and housing tracts.

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County 4-H membership 10 years ago totaled 1,975 children and was dropping. Thanks to the 1,200 or so who belong to after-school clubs, it now has 2,432 members in the county.

Today, there are 23 after-school 4-H clubs at housing projects or at nearby public schools.

The program costs about $1.6 million a year. It is primarily financed by donations from foundations, firms such as Unocal and Wells Fargo Bank, and public agencies, including housing authorities and school districts. Local officials hope to expand to 30 clubs next year.

More significantly, the concept is being extended to Kansas City, Oakland and Philadelphia and is reportedly poised to start in Chicago. Federal officials have praised it as a model that urban areas across the country should consider.

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That compliment has been accompanied by cash: The Los Angeles 4-H chapter is sharing a $3.5-million Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to help launch new clubs.

HUD’s involvement was highlighted last fall at a ceremony on the front steps of 4-H’s national headquarters in Chevy Chase, Md.

There, HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros presented a ceremonial check to 15-year-old Wilmington resident Elena Mares, an early member of the Dana Strand after-school club who now works there as a volunteer leader.

That type of federal commitment would have been unheard of in the 4-H of old. But so would a study program that lures children indoors five afternoons a week, 50 weeks a year.

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Urban 4-H activities aren’t new, of course. For years, clubs offering inner-city children chances to grow small gardens and learn about such things as cooking and clothing and textiles have been available.

Youngsters from metropolitan areas also have been welcome to join traditional agriculture-oriented 4-H clubs in suburban communities.

Now, though, “we’re taking the 4-H program to where kids live,” said Christie Phillips, an administrator and spokeswoman for the national 4-H council in Chevy Chase.

Los Angeles 4-H officials plan to eventually monitor the academic performance of after-school club members. “Parents have told us that their kids’ grades are better, that they are more attentive and more interested in what they are doing” because of the after-school program, Phillips said.

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Leaders of 4-H say a basic urban goal is to teach self-reliance, just as their predecessors did 100 years ago in Midwestern farm communities when they began distributing leaflets on poultry raising and home canning to school children.

By 1902, clubs dealing with things like vegetable-growing and soil testing were found in Illinois and other farm states. Soon, with the blessing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, land-grant colleges and state-supported agricultural cooperative agencies joined to create a 4-H program that continues today.

That history matters little to the children in Bungalow 26 at Broadway Elementary School in Venice. There, the 4-H club members had finished eating the results of a Chinese egg roll cooking project and were busily making papier mache calabashes.

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The after-school club meetings are highly structured. Homework is from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Recreation and snack time is from 3:30 to 4:15. Craft work and clean-up runs until 5 p.m. and there’s reading between 5 and the 5:30 p.m. dismissal.

“We help each other with homework. We work a lot on math and reading,” said Kathy Soriano, 9, president of the 45-member Broadway School club. “After I do my homework I help other people. We learn here that we should help people.”

Using older children as tutors “helps kids practice skills they might already have, but never put into practice,” said club coordinator Jany Stanley.

“People are really surprised to see 4-H here. You see 4-H in nicer areas like Palos Verdes. Here there’s a totally different socioeconomic group.”

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As unusual as the after-school groups may seem to traditionalists, they are not the only proof that this is not your father’s 4-H.

Clubs dealing with subjects such as horticulture, dairy cattle, sheep and swine can still be found in Los Angeles. But the second-largest 4-H activity in the county (involving 684 children) is the study of creative arts, crafts and hobbies.

The smallest is a “tractors and farm machinery” unit. Reynaldo Farjardo is its only participant.

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“No, I’m not going to be a farmer,” said Farjardo, 15, who lives at Lake Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley. “My dream when I was younger was to be a lawyer. Now I think I might be a lawyer specializing in agriculture.”

Five children in Claremont are among 64 county 4-H members who are studying aerospace and rocketry. They build projectiles in club leader Patrick Keller’s breakfast nook.

“I can say our club is definitely not old-fashioned,” said the 16-year-old Patrick. “Around here farming doesn’t affect us.”

Not anymore.

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