A few years ago Alofaifo Faleono was like a lot of Long Beach youngsters struggling to make their way through elementary school. He was bashful, with low self-esteem and not a lot of confidence. He was going around in a circle, treading water. His future was bleak at best. Then he made what he now calls “the greatest decision of my life” to turn his life around. He told his story to a packed house of community leaders, teachers, parents and other students at a recent awards ceremony of the Education Equals Opportunity Too Leadership Foundation.
Alofaifo said his life-changing decision was to participate in the foundation’s program at Colin Powell Academy in north Long Beach. “I finally got my priorities straight,” said the poised, well-spoken youth who now is an A student at Jordan High School. He told students that they could get good grades “with determination, concentration and desire. You can do it. You’ve got to be hungry for it.” He even quoted Lord Chesterfield who said you can achieve anything, all it takes is hard work.
At Colin Powell, Alofaifo was helped by the Education Equals Opportunity Too Foundation, a unique program started by entrepreneurs Julie and Walter Larkins. The program is designed to help socially and academically at-risk eighth-graders achieve better grades and learn communication and job interviewing skills. The foundation provides mentoring, speakers and field trips, like the one at City Hall sponsored recently by Council member Lena Gonzalez. The students are challenged to achieve a 3.5 GPA. If they succeed, they are rewarded with a laptop, printer, flash drive and backpack.
So far, the program is installed at Washington Middle School and Powell Academy. Hopes are to spread the program into other Long Beach schools. Walter Larkins said he and his wife started the foundation as an experiment with help from the Valero Energy Corporation. “We didn’t know if it would have an impact, but we decided to try and we’ve had great success,” he said.
So far, the results have been impressive at the schools which have a majority Latino and African American student body. More than 75 percent of the students qualify for school lunch programs. The average beginning GPA of the more than 200 students participating was 2.34, with an average ending GPA of 2.79, a 16 percent increase. Disciplinary referrals decreased 64 percent, Walter said.
Twenty-nine percent of students earned laptops by achieving a 3.5 or above GPA. The GPAs of students earning laptops improved 16 percent. Larkins said overall attendance has improved 31 percent and tardiness has been reduced by 50 percent. “No one succeeds without help from someone else,” Walter said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s like throwing pebbles into a pond. There’s a ripple effect.” Julie Larkins, a Sunland-Tujunga native, won a Press-Telegram Amazing Woman Award in the business/entrepreneur category. She and her husband started CDR Financial which provides business consulting and employment outreach to underprivileged youth.
Wendy Claflin, principal at Powell, and Megan Traver, principal at Washington, thanked the Larkinses for investing in young people and for believing in them. “They’re our future,” Traver said as proud parents and friends applauded.
Rich Archbold is public editor of the Press-Telegram and a member of the Los Angeles News Group editorial board. [email protected]