It was supposed to have been a one-time raid on his pension.
UCLA professor of medicine Glenn Langer dipped into his savings in 1996 to create scholarships for junior high school students in one of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods.
His idea was simple. Lennox Middle School would pick half a dozen of its brightest seventh-graders. He would donate $8,600 over the next six years to each child to pay for books and calculators, mentoring expenses, field trips to museums and theaters and--eventually--for tuition at private high schools.
Langer, who retired in 1997, was familiar with Lennox from an earlier visit there for a school science fair. He had come away impressed by the eagerness of the pupils--but depressed by statistics that showed that fewer than 15% of youngsters from the community just east of Los Angeles International Airport would go on to college.
If the scholarships worked as he figured they would, the cash would pave the way out of the gritty neighborhood for the children. His seed money would prompt private companies and charitable foundations to turn the scholarships into an annual event in Lennox.
Langer’s first group of seven scholarship winners in 1996 thrived. So the next year he decided to spend more of his savings to sponsor a second group of scholarships. Then a third.
This week Langer launched his fourth--and perhaps final--group of eager junior high scholarship winners.
With about $235,000 of his retirement nest egg committed to the ongoing scholarships, the 71-year-old Langer cannot afford to give any more.
But so far he has been unable to find an ongoing, permanent sponsor for the pint-size scholars, who now total 29.
Big foundations are not interested because the Lennox program is not big enough in scope, Langer has learned. And smaller local charities do not want to become involved because of the six-year commitment they would be required to make.
“I’ve applied to over 20 big foundations and been rejected by them all,” Langer said.
“They say their grant-making has to be focused on programs or projects that address needs on a national, regional or statewide level.
“On the other hand, when we go to community-based foundations, they reject us because they don’t take funding requests for more than one year at a time. We’re in a Catch-22 situation.”
Langer has managed to persuade Hughes Electronics in El Segundo to fund six scholarships. Two family friends, Brita Millard of Los Angeles and Jeanne Kranhold of Tarzana, are supporting two others and businessman Chet Pipkin is financing a third. Langer is financing the other 20 himself.
The program is set up to pay $700 a year for expenses in the seventh and eighth grades and $1,800 a year for grades nine through 12.
The scholarships are administrated by Lennox Middle School through a volunteer advisory board and are tax-deductible. As part of the program, the board also coordinates the work of volunteer mentors (their expenses are paid) that is part of the program.
“There are no overhead costs. Everything goes directly to the kids,” said Meg Sanchez, a middle school resource teacher who helps coordinate the scholarships.
Although junior high might seem like an unusual age to get a scholarship, the timing is perfect, according to Sanchez.
By the time pupils are in seventh grade, educators can identify those with desire and ability. And at that young age “they still are not cynical” like hardened high school students can be, she said.
“We have 29 kids from this school who would never have been to the Getty or to see ‘South Pacific’ or on a plane to visit UC Berkeley without this program,” Sanchez said.
After middle school, Langer’s first group of seven scholarship winners all chose to enroll in private St. Bernard High School instead of their local school, Hawthorne High. They say there are smaller classes and a more rigorous college preparatory curriculum at the Playa del Rey campus.
The 1996 winners returned to the middle school this week for a short ceremony announcing the 1999 winners.
“I’ll be the first one from my family to go to college,” said returnee Milagro Romero, a 10th-grader who had never attended school and could not read when her family emigrated from El Salvador five years ago.
Maria Pelayo, who bought French books and taught herself the language with part of her first year’s $700 grant, said: “Glenn Langer changed my life forever.”
New winner Giana Zelaya said word of the junior high scholarships has filtered down to elementary school pupils in Lennox, which lies east of the San Diego Freeway beneath the approach to Los Angeles International Airport.
“Ever since fifth grade I knew this was for me,” the seventh-grader told a crowd that gathered at the middle school library to honor the new winners. “It’s a giant step to an education and a career. It’s proof there are good people in this world.”
As further proof of that, Langer and his wife, Marianne, have set up a trust fund that will go to the Lennox scholarships after they die. For now, Langer pledged to continue the funding hunt for next year from their retirement home in the Northern California town of Little River.
And as he returned there Wednesday, there was an encouraging word from a Los Angeles-based group that assists local nonprofit organizations.
Peter Manzo, head of the Center for Nonprofit Management, said he plans to offer Langer fund-raising assistance, including a computerized list of potential donors.
Langer’s scholarships are the type of innovative, measurable program that charitable groups are coming to appreciate, he said.
The chances for a new group of Lennox scholars a year from now? “I’m optimistic,” Manzo said.