Prisons or Education?

By Tony Brown (’00), Heart of Los Angeles

Did you know that in the state of California it costs roughly seven times more to house one prisoner for a year than it does to send just one child to a college or university?

The annual combined budget for all Cal State and University of California campuses (thirty-two total) is less than half of what California spends on prisons. That’s a truly astounding fact and it gets even more troubling when you move to the inner cities. In Los Angeles, more than two-thirds of low-performing schools are in neighborhoods with the highest incarceration rates, and that same percentage of the city’s high-performing schools are in neighborhoods with the lowest incarceration rates.

For the past seven years I have been the executive director of Heart of Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that provides thousands of at-risk youth with free, exceptional after-school programs in academics, arts, and athletics, including a world-class youth orchestra program, a vibrant visual arts department, a full college-prep program, and premier sports leagues and clinics. In neighborhoods often overrun by poverty, crime, and a feeling of hopelessness, HOLA invests in youth to build stronger communities and gives some of the city’s most vulnerable youth a chance to succeed in life.

HOLA is located in the Rampart District, one of the most densely populated communities in the country. Approximately 90 percent of the families we serve live at or below the poverty line, and our kids deal daily with the pressures of gang activity, crime, and immigration status.

Our children attend some of California’s most under-resourced and lowest-performing schools, where graduation rates hover around 50 percent. HOLA aims to address the huge shortfall in state funding for education by providing supplemental programs and services that our kids aren’t getting inside or outside of school.

We provide intensive academic support to kids ages six to nineteen. With targeted intervention and one-on-one support, we give students the individualized attention they need. We track our students’ grades with results that are resoundingly positive.

In their junior year of high school, our students begin intensive college prep, and in the summer before their senior year, students are paired up with volunteer mentors who work with them through college applications, financial aid, and the scholarship process.

During the last three years, 100 percent of the students in our program graduated from high school, and more than 90 percent are still enrolled in college. There are currently more than 200 HOLA alumni attending seventy-five colleges and universities around the country.

While doing graduate work at UT, I discovered the importance of establishing partnerships with public and private agencies to leverage HOLA’s assets. Today, HOLA partners with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Lakers, Bard College, and the LA City Department of Recreation and Parks. These partnerships are key to providing programs of the highest quality to thousands of underserved children.

As I look to the future, I see street corners once occupied by gangs and overrun by criminal activity that are now safe for visiting artists, teachers, alumni, and volunteers. Drugs, weapons, and spray cans have been replaced with instruments, books, sports gear, paintbrushes, and canvases. Everyone in the community is sharing lessons learned, and the local schools and surrounding neighborhoods are becoming strong foundations for fostering the next generation of productive and successful contributors. Heart of Los Angeles has become a beacon center of hope that unites partners with youth and their families to transform communities.

Read more about Tony Brown and Heart of Los Angeles in Accolades magazine from the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.

Photo by Jon Rou

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