Thirteen-year-old Irving Hernandez has found a solution to avoiding gangs that frequent his neighborhood in South Los Angeles: he builds low-rider bikes and spins hip-hop tracks with buddies after school.
Every day after year-round classes at George Washington Carver Middle School, Hernandez and about 600 other students participate in various after-school activities such as hip-hop dance, model building, sports and typing classes.
All activities are coordinated through Woodcraft Rangers, an 85-year-old nonprofit organization that annually serves more than 15,000 students ages 6 to 18 in after-school and camping programs in Los Angeles County.
"My best friend told me to join, and me and my parents thought it was cool," said Hernandez, who joined Woodcraft Rangers two years ago. "It keeps me out of the streets and makes me focus on something else aside from just school."
Hernandez first joined up as a disc jockey, mixing a playlist from rap and R&B artists Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Chris Brown and his favorite, T-Pain -- sans the "bad words," he said.
Although he still occasionally does some DJ work, Hernandez earlier this year switched to building low-rider bikes with 21 other classmates. This year students had to buy their bike parts, but managers hope to provide the parts next year.
"It taught me a lot about hard work and discipline," Hernandez said, adding that he worked in his parents' mobile taco stand and delivered papers to save $350 for bike parts.
Woodcraft Rangers spends $500,000 a year to fund activities at Carver, which has about 2,000 students and is its largest site. The program operates at 66 public schools and community centers throughout the county, stretching from the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys down to South Los Angeles. It has a total annual budget of $12 million and employs 470 people.
With parental consent, students apply to the program, which operates on a first-come, first-serve basis, and are required to attend at least three days a week from about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. They do homework for 45 minutes, take a 15-minute snack break and then participate in recreational activities until about 6 p.m.
Woodcraft Rangers Chief Executive Cathie Mostovoy said her organization's approach to educating and mentoring students doesn't stick to traditional after-school activities.
In addition to tutoring, sports and typing classes, the Carver site, for example, has hip-hop dance and a video game arcade stocked with a Nintendo Wii, a Nintendo GameCube and a Sony PlayStation 2. Other schools have graffiti art and martial arts classes.
"In order to engage youth in activities that allow them to discover new talents, enhance self-esteem and master new skills, you have to appeal to their interests," Mostovoy said.
Elmer Reyes, a 13-year-old in eighth grade said using the video game arcade has taught him about the importance of teamwork, time management and decision-making.
"It's a lot of fun, especially because I don't have any of this at home," Reyes said. "Before my mom gets off work and can pick me up, this is my place to hang out."
But the program isn't just all fun and games.
Students in Woodcraft Rangers earn better grades and score higher on standardized tests, according to a June 2007 study conducted by Lodestar Management/Research Inc., a Los Angeles-based consulting and research firm used by various state and county agencies.
About 76% of the elementary school participants maintained or improved their spring report card grades in both reading and math, while 53% of the middle school participants maintained or improved their spring grade point averages from one year to the next, the study found.
On the California Standards Test, most participants stayed at or moved up a proficiency level between 2004-05 and 2005-06 in English and math, the study found.
This year, Woodcraft Rangers received $15,000 from the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign. Mostovoy said the money would be used for field trips, uniforms and paying instructors to lead various activities. The youth organization's funding comes through a mix of public and private donations and grants.
Although Woodcraft Rangers was originally founded in 1902 by author Ernest Thompson Seton to provide alternative activities for delinquent youth, it didn't obtain nonprofit status until 1922, Mostovoy said.
But the goal has always been the same: "to deflect children from criminal activities by providing character-building opportunities based on the principles of service, truth, fortitude and beauty," the group's mission statement reads.
Cesar Zaragosa, manager for the program's Carver site, remembers not having an after-school program when he attended the middle school in the early 1990s. Woodcraft Rangers started their program at Carver in the 1995-96 school year.