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Boyle Heights group puts forth 5-year plan for neighborhood improvement

On Friday, members of LAUSD, the State Assembly, the California Endowment and Boyle Heights area nonprofit groups gathered at Mendez Learning Center to announce a five-year plan of action to help improve health, housing and education in the neighborhood. Their aim: everything from establishing mental health programs to increasing affordable housing. The area that speakers at Friday's event most emphasized, however, was education.

"We want to make it as difficult as possible for a kid to drop out of school," said Lester Garcia of the Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative.

The educational programs outlined in the Boyle Heights Promise Neighborhood Initiative's plan encourage not only high school completion, but college attendance for the neighborhood's approximately 6,000 kids under the age of 18. That's an ambitious goal for a community where one in three families live below the poverty line and almost 70 percent of adults have less than a high school education.

"Our state is facing a lot of challenges right now. There are too many Californians out of work," said Assemblyman John Perez. "Properly educating our youth is key to preparing them for the 21st century economy."

The plan was funded by a federal grant and the result of meetings with Boyle Heights community organizers, residents, and teachers.

Three hundred communities across the country applied for the $500,000 funds, but only 21 communities received them - three of which were in California.

Boyle Heights received their grant last September. In October, they began putting together their five-year plan. This is the first year that the grants have been awarded.

Now that it's been created, the plan will be re-submitted to the Department of Education for the second, "implementation" phase of the grant. Of the 21 groups that will submit plans, only four to six will receive funds of between $4 to 6 million to put their plans into action.
About 100 members of the Boyle Heights community have met over the past 9 months to take part in the planning, said Lester Garcia. They organized themselves with a method that Garcia described as a "distributive leadership structure" – meaning that while many organizations were involved, all decisions were made by the group as a whole.

The faltering economy helped spur interest in developing the plan, even as it posed a challenge to its funding. Garcia said that the Obama administration was originally going to award the grants to 10 communities, but cuts to the federal budget along with resistance to government spending from opposing party members reduced the budget for the program to $23.5 million, which will only cover four to six communities.

Even if they're lucky enough to receive it, the federal grant will not be enough to cover all the projects that the Boyle Heights group has planned through 2017. A stipulation of the award will be that the community must match every dollar of the grant with fundraising. That fundraising has already begun.

"We went into planning knowing that the environment, both politically and economically was very tough, but that's even more of an impetus [for the project]" said Daycy Avitia of the Boyle Heights' nonprofit Proyecto Pastoral. She added that economic pressures will force the community to work hard to show both taxpayers and private donors that all of the money for the project is being fully utilized.

The Boyle Heights group will submit their five-year plan to the Department of Education in early September and will find out if they will receive federal funding to implement it at the end of the year. Either way, Garcia said, Boyle Heights has committed to improving the neighborhood, and their plan will go into action one way or another.