This fall, Crenshaw High School valedictorian Christerbell Ahaiwe will start her freshman year at UCLA. What her new classmates might not realize is how hard she worked to get there.
Growing up with six siblings in South Los Angeles, Christerbell had to squeeze in her homework around daily chores and tutoring her sister, who struggles with a learning disability. If it wasn’t for the one-on-one college and financial aid counseling she received through the Fulfillment Fund, her prospects might not have been so bright.
College is a given for many local Jewish teens, but for thousands of low-income students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), it is not assured. Neither is an encouraging learning environment — or even a safe one. Gang violence, poverty and severe budget cuts that affect classroom resources are just a few of the factors that make higher education a far-off prospect for some 100,000 students in the district’s Title One high schools (defined as having high numbers of students from low-income families).
Kenny Rogers, CEO of the Fulfillment Fund, is working to change that. “We want to make college a reality for students in Los Angeles who are growing up in under-resourced communities,” he said.
For nearly 40 years, the Fulfillment Fund has offered mentoring, academic instruction and guidance programs that plug gaps in L.A.’s public education system. A college education, the nonprofit’s leaders believe, is key to giving students a shot at careers that pay more than minimum wage — and hope for a more fulfilling life.
Improving college access for underprivileged kids might seem like an unlikely cause for Gary and Cherna Gitnick, the Encino couple who founded the organization in 1977 and have remained heavily involved in its operation. The pair moved to Los Angeles from Nebraska so Gary could teach medicine at UCLA (he’s now chief of the division of digestive diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine). But they noticed the impact of mounting inner-city turmoil on the city’s children — namely, how poverty led to hopelessness and despair. If there is a way to give kids opportunity, they felt, children will feel empowered to make something of their lives and become productive citizens.
The Gitnicks’ vision started small, with an annual holiday party the couple hosted for children with disabilities. Then, seeing how Gary’s patients benefited from having positive role models, he and Cherna created a mentoring program that paired trained adult volunteers with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It was very motivating,” Gary recalled, noting that students’ high school attendance and graduation rates improved when they had someone who could show them that “it’s possible to pull yourself up.”
But what about after graduation? Knowing that the best jobs increasingly require college degrees, the Gitnicks developed a classroom-based curriculum that teaches high school students how to prepare for college. In gang-ridden schools, where students often receive little parental or financial support, course instructors coach teens on how higher education can be a path to higher income and the practical aspects of getting there: studying for the SATs, writing a college essay, filling out a college application. Crucially, the program also connects students with college counselors, whose numbers have dwindled at LAUSD schools because of budget cuts.
The resource gap has dire implications for student success: Nationally, eight in 10 students from the upper income quartile get college degrees, while only one in 10 from the bottom income quartile do, Rogers said.
“Essentially, we try to provide young people with all of the necessary resources that our kids would get,” Gary said recently at the Encino home where he and Cherna raised four children of their own and followed the triumphs of thousands more.
Their formula works. Ninety percent of the Fulfillment Fund’s high school graduates go to college, compared to about half of low-income kids nationally. And 70 percent of those students finish with a degree, compared to 30 percent of their peers.
“We more than double their chances of going to college and getting their degrees,” Rogers said. “Helping students go to college and graduate has immense value for the community.”
It’s also consistent with Jewish values. Rogers, whose oldest son recently had his bar mitzvah at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, often contemplates the adage, tzedek, tzedek tirdof — justice, justice shall you pursue. And as the High Holy Days approach, it’s easy to see the theme of personal transformation in Fulfillment Fund students’ stories.
When one young man, Marcelo, entered the program, he was stealing hubcaps for cash. He was matched with a pair of mentors who encouraged him to turn his life around; eventually, he went to business school at USC and found a career in real estate investment. Efren, a Hamilton High School student who exasperated instructors in the Fulfillment Fund’s college access curriculum, once skateboarded through the halls. This past summer, after working hard to raise his grades, he scored an internship with a skateboard clothing company.
The organization now works with more than 2,500 students in Los Angeles, with its college access program in five LAUSD schools, its mentoring program throughout the district and college scholarships provided to 250 students per year. With its yearly budget of $4.5 million funded entirely by private donations, the nonprofit’s reach is impressive.
“A lot of people look at our educational system and say, ‘It’s too big, it’s too broken — why invest?’ ” Rogers said. “But we can make a difference, one student at a time.”