Above: Le Conte Middle School sixth-graders are joined by educators and officials from the Youth Policy Institute as they proclaim readiness to plan for college.

More than 2,000 Los Angeles students will benefit from a new $11.2 million federal grant that aims to solidify college-preparatory pipelines from middle school through college.

Seniors from STEM Academy of Hollywood, from left, Citlaly Bastian, Douglas Linares, M.D. Islam and Michelle Nguyen guide Le Conte Middle School students on how to prepare for college.

The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP) grant was announced last Thursday at Helen Bernstein High School by a team that included Board Vice President Nick Melvoin, Acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“I’ve had the pleasure of talking with a lot of our students and hearing about their dreams,” Garcetti said. “Programs like GEAR UP provide the tools that help us understand and address the needs of these students so we can help them overcome obstacles and get to graduation ready to realize those dreams.”

In 2014, Garcetti led a coalition of non-profit and public-sector partners that designated five ethnically and linguistically diverse neighborhoods – Hollywood, East Hollywood, Pico-Union, Westlake and Wilshire Center – as a Los Angeles Promise Zone. The federally designated areas were created during the Obama administration where high poverty, unemployment and dropout rates, along with a shortage of affordable housing, are seen as barriers to a future of hope and promise.

View additional photos from this event

The Youth Policy Institute (YPI), a San Fernando-based non-profit organization, leads the coalition in administering GEAR UP and other federal grants that provide students with free access to tutoring, counseling and other college-prep programs. The new initiative will support students from sixth grade through their first year of college.

“With the help of valuable partners like YPI, we’re turning what others may see as deficiencies into opportunities,” Melvoin said. “We’re moving toward an era in which zip code is no longer tied to a child’s destiny. Where the kind of collaboration and innovation we see here will break that pattern and put all students on the path to success.”

Among those joining the mayor and board vice president at the podium was Bernstein High School graduate Elizabeth Peña. Now a freshman at UCLA, Peña spoke about how she benefitted from YPI-led initiatives to graduate high school in only three years.

“Having so many supportive people involved in my education helped me maintain a mindset that got me to college,” she said. “I remember a lot of times I felt down or frustrated at challenges I faced. And, I learned to use my hardships to push myself even further and achieve my dreams. I am so happy that so many other students will have similar systems of support that will help them achieve what I have.”

Kevin Solis (left) and Mathew Gomez, two STEM Academy of Hollywood seniors with above-4.0 grade point averages, are part of a panel taking questions from students about how they’ve stayed on track to succeed.

During the kick-off event, high school seniors worked side-by-side with sixth-graders on activities designed to inspire them to prepare for college. Seniors from Promise Zone schools worked on computer terminals in the Bernstein complex library where they pressed ‘send’ on college applications as Garcetti and other special guests cheered them on.

Among the students applying for college was Mathew Gomez, a senior at STEM Academy of Hollywood, one of three schools in the Bernstein complex.

“Today was really inspiring,” he said. “I was able to talk to a lot of people who attended places like Harvard and other top-notch universities. They asked me how I was doing, how my grades were and seemed genuinely interested in helping me succeed. I feel like I can apply anywhere I want to go next year and have any job I want.”

Part of the biomedical pathway at the STEM Academy, Gomez plans to major in cellular and molecular biology at a university next year. While he doesn’t yet know where he will attend, he is setting his sights high applying to over a dozen schools, including California State University and University of California campuses as well as the University of Southern California, Cornell, Harvard and Princeton Universities.

Acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian expressed gratitude for the partnerships in support of L.A. Unified’s central mission to graduate every student college and career ready.

“Our District is so fortunate to have this dream team working to keep our students on track to success,” she said. “I came to this country as an immigrant, and I know first-hand what it’s like to overcome obstacles. So, to the students I say, ‘take advantage of the opportunities that GEAR UP and other programs help provide. No matter how difficult or unreachable it may seem at the time, do not give up on achieving your goals. We are here to ensure that you get there and go farther than anyone could ever have imagined.’”