The residential district of South Los Angeles known as Watts is marred by nihilism, apathy and poverty. It comprises predominantly Latino and African-American residents.
Though besieged by the maladies that impair other urban areas such as crime, poverty and underperforming schools, it also has an oasis of hope and possibility.
Verbum Dei High School is an all-male Catholic, Jesuit, college and career preparatory complemented by a corporate internship program. It serves young men of Watts and the surrounding communities who are economically and academically underserved.
Between 2007 and 2012, 100 percent of Verbum students gained college acceptance, including to schools such as Stanford, Georgetown, Yale, UCLA, UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.
The Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP) is an innovative partnership between business, education and the students of Verbum Dei.
Participating organizations provide Verbum Dei one "full-time equivalent" student internship for a fee of $28,000. The highly motivated young men who fill the positions are from low-income families. Each student works five full days a month on a rotating basis, and they attend classes and participate in extracurricular activities the remaining days.
CWSP is usually a four-year commitment between the school, corporate partner and student. There is a wide range of corporate participation that includes, but is not limited to, banking, energy, construction, entertainment and legal.
Gene Blackard, managing partner of Archer Norris PLC -- a Bay Area law firm with offices in Walnut Creek, Los Angeles, and Sacramento -- has enthusiastically supported CWSP for several years.
"It has given us a completely different perspective as to what happens in the community itself. When they initially arrive, probably the only thing we have in common is they need work-study and we are participants in the program. But when they come through the door, we get to know them; they get to know us, and it's eye-opening," Blackard said.
One of the subtle benefits of CWSP is its reciprocal value -- a prerequisite for any authentic relationship. Corporation and student become mutual beneficiaries in an experience that is otherwise unlikely without the link offered by CWSP.
Before the internship, students must go through a summer intensive that explains what corporations expect, what Verbum Dei expects and, most important, what they should expect of themselves.
"The most important thing the Corporate Work Study Program did for me was to expose me to the corporate world and empower me to be part of it," said Kevin Mendoza, now a senior at the UC Berkeley.
For four years corporate participants offer an example of what is possible beyond the potentially suffocating conditions of the underachieving status quo.
Verbum Dei does possess certain advantages not generally available to public schools. It's small (less than 300 enrollment), it selects students for admission and it can provide a different culture.
Through the lens of privilege, it is easy to assume that appearance, behavior in the workplace, punctuality and honesty are universal standards.
But the dominant culture of underachieving schools eschews high achievement, critical thinking and opportunities for higher education. If that culture is not altered, there can be no significant change in results.
The CWSP is successful because everyone involved has skin in the game, and they desire the same outcome.
From the corporate participants' perspective, the real magnitude of their involvement becomes clear at the annual year-end event when the young men tell where they served their internship, what they've learned and how they plan to use their experience going forward.
As Blackard shared with me, "There is not a dry eye in the place."
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.