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A Stellar Idea : After-School Program Offers Students Art, Music, Field Trips and More


Maybe there are more trying times growing up than the years between grade school and high school. If so, few can remember them.

And certainly, there are tougher neighborhoods than the working-class enclave surrounding Le Conte Middle School in Hollywood. Still, its rough-hewn blocks of noisy streets and crowded apartments don't always feel safe, especially for kids.

But four afternoons a week, on a campus a short walk from Sunset Boulevard, where gleaming television studios sit like fortresses apart from the hustle of the streets, dozens of students push their way through the awkward, often painful preteen years with the help of actors, artists, dancers and musicians.

For just over a year, the Hollywood Stars Afterschool Program has done what many afternoon school programs do throughout Los Angeles: give students a place to learn and have fun after the school day is over.

But it also has done much more.

With a staff of volunteers ranging from full-time teachers to jazz musicians, Hollywood Stars has provided an array of sports and other activities that not only occupy students but reach them where they live.

Classroom discussions probe tolerance and isolation. Drama workshops offer insight into acting and storytelling. Gardening programs bring some beauty and nature to a gray, concrete world.

Chess. Computers. Art. Field trips.

There isn't much this program does not offer.

"The goal of the program, really, is to establish a safe and stimulating environment for students after school," said Sharon Stricker, a writer and educator who developed the program with Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg.

The two, both former Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, devised the program early last year, dismayed by the lack of after-school programs surviving budget cuts in the district, especially among middle schools.

"This is a very critical age . . . it's such a turning point age because kids are very disillusioned during that time," Stricker said.

And with the constant lure of the streets, of drugs and gangs and anything that helps them to connect, Stricker said, middle school students are particularly vulnerable to bad choices. Sometimes it's the wrong crowd; other times, unhealthy isolation.

So beginning with 25 volunteers and corporate or in-kind donations from businesses, labor unions and individuals, Stricker and Goldberg opened the Hollywood Stars program with one goal: to turn an urban campus into a place where kids would be happy to stay after school.

Since the program began, more than 300 students have learned about music from the likes of jazz legend Buddy Collette, about drama from Broadway and television actor William Seymour, about dance from Le Conte instructor Myra Mossman, about human relations and sign language from coordinator David Goldberg, and about sports from pro athletes, past and present, including Armenian soccer league star Minas Taraktchyan.

"It's all volunteer-based," said Linda Ortiz, the program's coordinator and a former aide to Councilwoman Goldberg. And they have been amazingly reliable.

As a new schedule of classes began this summer, students Gary Sasunyan and Julio Melger arrived in the program's classroom after an afternoon game of basketball.

"It's a good place to hang out," Sasunyan, 12, said.

The students, who reflect the school's predominant populations of Latinos and Armenians, both said they have learned much from the program. For Sasunyan, that has meant understanding computers and practicing the piano. For Melger, art.

"I used to draw before but not as much" as now, the 13-year-old said.

In the past year there have been field trips to sporting events or stage productions, to the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro and to Los Angeles' Museum of Tolerance.

Anton Morales, a 22-year-old musician who grew up not far from Le Conte, remembers when he was a middle school student casting about for something to deliver him from the streets. Now he offers his answer--music--to these youngsters as a volunteer.

"If we have programs like this, things can change" for them, he said.

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