Students and others attend the Education Equals Opportunity Too Leadership Foundation graduation ceremony at the Long Beach Veterans Administration Medical Center. Students who earned good enough grades received a laptop, printer, flashdrive and backpack. (Courtesy photo)

Long Beach middle-school students earn rewards and opportunity

This was not your ordinary graduation where all you got was a handshake and a smile. These students, graduating from Long Beach middle schools, took home with them a brand new laptop, a printer, flash drive and a backpack.

When their names were called, they practically jumped out of their seats to accept their electronic treasures. These students had just completed a rigorous program sponsored by the Education Equals Opportunity Too Leadership Foundation in connection with the Long Beach Unified School District.

One of the key speakers was Alofaifo Faleono, a straight-A Jordan High School senior who had come a long way since he was a struggling sixth-grader whose future was bleak at best. Faleono told his story to a packed house of parents, students, teachers and community leaders at the Long Beach Veterans Administration Medical Center. Faleono gave credit for turning his life around to Education Equals Opportunity Too, a Long Beach nonprofit created to help socially and academically at-risk youths. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn your life around,” he said. “I’m glad I made the most of it.”

Sixty-three students paraded to the podium to get their rewards as parents and friends applauded. The unique program was started by entrepreneurs Julie and Walter Larkins. Larkin and his wife, last year’s president of Leadership Long Beach, own CDR Financial and started E=02 as a way to do something to help at-risk students succeed in school. They wanted to disrupt poverty by envisioning an intervention for at-risk youth that borrows from traditional business models of incentivizing and training. When they dug into the issue, they discovered research stating that college preparedness begins as early as middle school.

The program is designed for eighth-graders to achieve better grades and learn communication and job interviewing skills. Students are challenged to achieve a 3.5 GPA. If they succeed, they are rewarded with a laptop, printer and backpack. The program also requires parent or guardian/teacher engagement in at least two school events and student participation of at lease one hour per week during the school year. The program also exposes students to mentors who help guide the youths, speakers and field trips.

Colin Powell Academy was the first school to start the program. It has been expanded to Washington Middle School, Lindsey Middle School and Nelson Academy. Walter Larkins said the need is great as the skills gap and education gap facing minority youth in Long Beach continues to grow.

Overall, he said graduation rates for all LBUSD are 81 percent, but the graduation rate for Latinos and African-Americans are at 78.8 percent and 73.7 percent respectively. So far, E=02 has reached 523 eighth-grade students. Larkins said all students have gone on to high school and are doing well. Disciplinary problems have decreased.

Walter and Julie said they are committed to expanding the program but will need to find additional sources of funding to make that possible. Walter said they started the foundation as an experiment with help from the Valero Energy Corp. “No one succeeds without help from someone else,” he said. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s like throwing pebbles into a pond. There’s a ripple effect.”

Rich Archbold is public editor of the Press-Telegram and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. [email protected]

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