Things have come full circle in Lennox where an unusual junior high scholarship program was hatched a dozen years ago.
It was 1997, and the retiring head of UCLA’s cardiovascular research lab had decided to dip into his retirement savings to buy books, calculators and museum tickets for six disadvantaged students at Lennox Middle School. He would also pay stipends to personal mentors who would help steer each youngster through high school and, eventually, into college.
Glenn Langer had been impressed with pupils studying beneath the landing path of Los Angeles International Airport when he had represented UCLA at a middle school science fair six years earlier. When 63 Lennox students applied for the $7,000 scholarships, he decided to increase the number of winners to seven.
Since then, his Partnership Scholars program has expanded to several other schools and involved a total of 450 teenagers. The grants, which are paid out from grades 7 to 12, now total $11,000 each.
Now, three of the earliest inductees have graduated from college and returned to the area as teachers. And the 80-year-old Langer is again preparing to raid his pension to finance five more Lennox Middle School scholarships.
The current recession has cut by two-thirds the corporate and private donations that now finance the nonprofit scholarship program. Instead of taking on a total of 60 new seventh-grade scholars as planned this year, Langer may be forced to accept only 20.
“I’m shaking every tree I can find,” said the retired cardiologist, who lives in the Northern California town of Little River. “I talked to a donor this morning and he said how he and his friends were having to set their priorities. A lot of people have lost 30 or 40% of their equity.”
At Lennox Middle School, surrounded by a working-class neighborhood where the median family income is about half of that in the rest of Los Angeles County, the scholarships are prized. This year, 90 pupils have applied for them.
“We’re quite concerned this year,” said Meg Sanchez, a Lennox Middle School assistant principal who sits on the scholarship program’s board of trustees. “We’re having trouble in this climate getting beneficiaries.”
The three previous scholarship winners who have returned to the area to teach also support the program. They recognize that Langer’s effort forever changed their lives.
“The mentor-scholar experience was the most important thing for me,” said Sara Vargas, now 24 and a first-grade teacher at Lennox’s Moffett Elementary School. “They exposed me to many cultural things. My mentor went with me to visit colleges when I was a high school senior.”
Milagro Romero, 26, is a seventh-grade pre-algebra teacher at Lennox Middle School. The El Salvador native remembers arriving in Lennox unable to read or write or even count. “I’d never been to school in my life until I came here at age 9,” she said.
Her scholarship program mentor even offered a place for her to live when her own family situation “almost made me homeless” in her senior year of high school, Romero said.
A graduate of Loyola Marymount University with a summa cum laude graduate degree from USC, Romero is now a mentor to two middle school scholars.
Former scholarship winner Sarah Sanchez, 23, now teaches Spanish at Inglewood’s Animo Leadership Charter High School a short distance from her former middle school. She also credits her mentor with preparing her to get into college. Her parents, immigrants from Mexico, had wanted her to go to college but “didn’t have the knowledge” to actually help her, she said.
“My benefactor, Brita Millard, was from Westwood and was always there for me. She even sat in the bleachers next to my parents at my high school graduation,” Sanchez said.
So more than a decade after being chosen as scholars, Sanchez, Romero and Vargas remain advocates of Langer’s work. What goes around, they say, comes around.