A tutoring class has helped 15 junior and senior high school students do more than just improve their grades.
For students such as Mikey James, 12, a boy about to graduate from a nine-month tutoring program at the Heart of Los Angeles Youth center, the class has helped them keep their lives together in a neighborhood where many youths end up on the street.
"A long time ago, I used to get in a lot of trouble and hang around with gangs," said James, a small boy who looks more like a member of the Little Rascals than a former aspiring gang member.
"I used to get D's and F's, now I get B's and C's. And my dad's happy because I don't get in so much trouble any more."
The tutoring class began in October, sponsored by businesses throughout the Los Angeles area.
Members of the Wilshire business community and other corporate volunteers came to the center twice a week to tutor the students, who attend schools in Westlake, Pico-Union, Koreatown, South-Central and other nearby communities. The center is next to Immanuel Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Berendo Street.
Last fall, program director Sally Spencer recruited 30 at-risk students she felt needed academic and emotional support among the more than 100 youths who take advantage of the nonprofit center's daily sports, art and theater activities, most of which are funded through private grants.
"Most of the kids were getting C's and D's, and some were getting good enough grades but needed support," Spencer said.
The students had to punch a clock each time they went to the tutoring sessions and were responsible for completing a total of three hours of study, two days a week.
Spencer says the 15 who stuck with the program have improved their grades dramatically, and those who needed emotional support have benefited from the friendship and guidance of their tutors.
Tammy Otero, a marketing manager for Southwest Airlines in her 20s, volunteered to tutor Mikey James. She says that in the months they have been studying together, the boy, whose mother died several years ago, has become like a little brother to her.
"I've learned a lot watching these kids grow," Otero said. "The thing I've enjoyed most has been being their friend."
Another success story is that of an 18-year-old recent Belmont High School graduate. Halfway through the school year, his Sudanese immigrant single father became overwhelmed by economic difficulties and by the incarceration of another son.
Fed up, his father told him he was leaving. Abandoned and with nowhere to go, the teen-ager approached Heart of Los Angeles Director Mitch Moore for help. Moore let him stay in the center for two months, helped him get an interview with a security company and, after he was hired full-time, helped him find an apartment.
But he still had to graduate from school, a difficult goal considering that he was working nights from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
"My schoolwork was the hardest thing to make up," the boy said. "I would go to the tutoring sessions on my days off, and my tutor would help me make up my work."
The teen-ager, who plans to save money so he can go to Africa and find his estranged mother, then return to Los Angeles and attend college, says he couldn't have gotten through his senior year without the tutoring he got at the center.
"This is a kid who had every opportunity to quit," Moore said. "He had to grow up really fast, and he did. He really got his life together."
The students who are graduating from the tutoring program will be rewarded for their hard work with a trip to San Antonio next week, with tickets donated by Southwest Airlines. Spencer says the program will continue next school year.