At 9 o'clock on a crystalline Saturday morning in South L.A., more than a dozen 16-year-olds are in perhaps the last place you would expect — drilling algebra equations in a classroom. Education honcho Kim Barrios-Thomas charges through the door.
"Mind on math," she announces. "Where are our minds?"
"Math!" the 10th-graders shout.
"Tenth grade is your stepping stone — it shouldn't be your roadblock," Barrios-Thomas tells the class. She explains she recently spoke to their teacher, who says a few folks could be working harder. "But, for the most part, I was falling-out-of-my-seat happy looking at your grades," Barrios-Thomas says.
The class holds only a small number of the 500-plus middle and high school students who come to USC to take part in the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, headed by Barrios-Thomas.
The program offers six years of college prep and is designed for kids in neighborhoods near USC. Most come from low-income families that often lack the academic tools and know-how to get their children into a university.
And the kids are showing up on weekends and on weekdays before breakfast.
"This is a neighborhood where college-going is not the norm," Barrios-Thomas, 49, explains as she walks down the hall to check in on another class. According to her, it's been a point of pride for parents in the community to be able to point to USC and say, "My kid is going to go there."
The program is similar to the much better known Harlem Children's Zone Project, headed by Geoffrey Canada. Many moviegoers would recognize him from the acclaimed documentary Waiting for Superman.
The USC program is built as much on Barrios-Thomas' tough love as it is on securing funding from grants and USC. She has been building the program for a decade, engaging the entire USC-area neighborhood by pushing parents to become involved, setting up a community watch program and incorporating social services. The number of participants has doubled since she began her work.
Barrios-Thomas grew up in the neighborhood and is herself a USC grad. All qualified graduates of the program who get into USC are granted a full financial aid package.
Not everyone gets into USC, she says. "But they are all going to college, or it's going to kill me. And I won't be killed."
As she makes the rounds, Barrios-Thomas heads into a classroom of seniors discussing Shakespeare.
"Who has heard from colleges?" Barrios-Thomas asks. They share the news: UC Davis, Mount St. Mary, Cal State Long Beach, San Jose State. The list of acceptance to schools goes on. One 12th-grader not present has just received notice of early admission to Yale.
Satisfied, Barrios-Thomas leaves. Of course, the director recognizes the Waiting for Superman connection.
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"I refuse to see that movie. ... I already know the disparities, that's why I work so hard," she says. "I don't need to sit there and cry about it. I already watch it every day."