Inspiring Youth Achievement with After-School Programming
Early in his career, Tony Brown taught in a private school, where encouragement and resources for students were abundant. The experience stood in stark contrast to that of students elsewhere in Los Angeles, particularly in Central and South Los Angeles. For Brown, it was a tale of two systems that signaled promise for some and peril for others.
Inspired to better serve all children, Brown became director of the Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) after-school program in 2003, serving a student community where an estimated 97 percent are from families living in poverty.
Through Brown’s leadership, HOLA has grown from a single-building program offering athletics into a four-facility “community campus” that provides art, music, athletics, and college preparatory programs to 2,300 young people each year.
About 600 youth visit the welcoming, art-filled HOLA campus daily, up to seven hours at a time. They receive academic support and, guided by mentors who learn about their aspirations and academic needs, they pursue personal passions — and defy expectations.
“We find that if you challenge kids and provide them structure and rigor, they respond with the results we all want to see,” says Brown.
HOLA engages young people in subjects that interest them deeply, providing intensive, personalized programming in arts and athletics not available in their schools. This is possible through a cadre of world-class partners. HOLA collaborates with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to furnish instruments and music instruction, with performances at major venues across California and abroad. Leading museums link HOLA with professional artists and exhibit student works, Bard College graduate students provide academic and music support, and the Los Angeles Lakers partner in sports programs.
Connecting to personal passions is paying off for students: In the 2014–15 academic year, 94 percent of HOLA elementary students performed at or above grade level, and 80 percent of participating middle schoolers improved their grades or maintained a B average or higher.
HOLA college prep students are dramatically increasing their SAT scores, college enrollment, and college persistence. Brown calls many of them “locomotive kids,” whose success and example help pull other family members out of poverty.
With a 300-student wait list each quarter, Brown is expanding HOLA’s programming and opening a new enrichment center to engage 4,000 community members per year by 2020. His approach demonstrates how investments in high-quality after-school programs can move young people away from the hazards of drugs, gangs, or incarceration — and toward academic achievement that benefits them and their families.
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