Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Project GRAD LA ~ Ford Roosevelt


Volunteers from Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams) Los Angeles fan out into a San Fernando Valley neighborhood, going door to door. They look like they are canvassing the community for an election, but instead of political flyers they carry “graduation contracts.” With a list of student names, they know the signatures they seek to obtain before the sun goes down – incoming sixth grade students to one of four middle schools that comprise a “feeder pattern” into San Fernando High School.

Leading the “Walk for Success” is Ford Roosevelt, President and Chief Executive Officer of Project GRAD Los Angeles. Among the volunteers are former graduates of the program, staff from Project GRAD headquarters in North Hollywood, and some pretty impressive funders that support the organization’s work–Michael Eisner included.

Former Project GRAD Scholars now on staff. Clockwise from top right:  Julisa Chavez, Maricela Gallegos, Alejandra Fregozo, Eliana Mendoza, Christina Gutierrez, Natalie Frausto, Yasmin Soltero, Jose Alcala and Bulmaro Huante

They can be very persuasive in getting students to sign the Agreement that states that they will stay in school and graduate from high school having completed a college-prep curriculum. Parents must also sign the contract and agree to support Project GRAD rules, which state that homework is completed on time, school attended every day, and classroom rules are obeyed. Mutual respect among students and teachers is also required. 

“We believe that a college education is a right, not a privilege,” explains Ford. 


For those students that participate, graduate from high school and maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average, the reward can be a scholarship to a four-year college. In a time when budget cuts to education are epidemic, this commitment by public and private sector partners, teachers and principals, parents and families, and community-based non-profits is an important step in increasing college graduation rates for first-generation students from low-income backgrounds.

Shan: How does the model for Project GRAD work?

Ford: The Project GRAD model is based on four inter-connected strategies for increasing student performance that are precursors to college: Academic Enrichment; Parent Engagement; College Awareness, Readiness, and Retention; and Community Partnerships.

Project GRAD works directly with students and parents in the North East San Fernando Valley to raise aspirations and help prepare students to graduate from high school and college. For us, that work begins as early as possible and involves providing wrap-around services as students move throughout the educational pipeline. These services include academic enrichment, tutoring, summer programs, a college readiness curriculum, and parent programs.

Morning sign in table at the 2011 Walk For Success.  About 1000 families from the community came to a community fair to learn about college and how to access resources in schools to be better prepared for college.  Project GRAD Los Angeles High School Site Coordinator, Yasmin Soltero is in foreground on the right.

Shan: What are some of the innovative ways Project GRAD keeps students engaged on a regular basis?

Ford: One example, Project GRAD uses to get students on board early is an intensive 4-week summer institute for 7th and 8th graders focused on algebra and robotics. We know that algebra proficiency is a key indicator for college success.

After the first Project GRAD Los Angeles Algebra and Robotics Summer Institute, student readiness for Algebra was tested and every student placed well enough to enter Algebra I (and after one semester, 85% of students earned a “C” or better). According to former LAUSD Superintendent, Roy Romer, failure in algebra “triggers dropouts more than any single subject.”
Our robotics programs have nothing to do with whether or not the students we work with are not as smart as students in wealthier communities. It's more a matter of bringing additional learning opportunities to our students that are similar as those in wealthier communities, which are just expected and a common practice. We are trying to level the playing field and create the same opportunities for learning and support as happens within wealthier communities.

Students who do not pass Algebra 1 in the 9th grade, are less likely to graduate from high school, let alone attend college. And for those students who do pass, and go on to college, too many must take remedial math before they are ready for college-level math.

Following the second summer institute, 90% of students after one semester had earned a “C” or better in Algebra I (36% earned an “A”, 33% earned a “B,” and 21% earned a “C.”) The institute includes mornings devoted to learning algebraic concepts, and afternoons applying those concepts to building and programming Lego robots.
We continue to support our students, 90% of whom are the first in their family to attend college, through the community college and university level. In collaboration with several higher education partners, Project GRAD is working to create the systemic change necessary to enable more first-generation college students to persist once they make it to college.

Up to 160 students learn through hands-on, real-life applications of algebra to compete each year in the “Robot Olympics” at the conclusion of the 4-week intensive institute.

Project GRAD Los Angeles works with about 14,000 students in four middle schools and four high schools. Presently, 580 Project GRAD Scholars are enrolled in colleges and universities across the country.  Since 2005, 230 Scholars have earned their college degrees.

One of 10 Project GRAD sites across the country, Project GRAD Los Angeles was founded in 1999 with substantial support from The Eisner Foundation and The Ford Foundation.

For more information about Project GRAD Los Angeles and ways to contribute, visit: or call 818-760-4695.

SShän Boggs is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her interests include science, technology, the environment, health, education, multimedia, art, and gourmet cooking. She is the author of a cookbook series for people with food allergies.

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