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CONTACT: Bruce Smith
Public Information Officer
(310) 434-4209
DATE: July 27, 2006

Graduation is This Monday, July 31

(NOTE: Additional photos are available on request.)

Santa Monica College professor Nancy Grass Hemmert was having a particularly challenging day, trying to control a chatty group of inner-city teenagers in her class. Finally, in exasperation, she asked her students what was going on. One raised his hand and said, “It’s not that we’re trying to be bad, everything you say is so exciting we can’t stop talking about it.”

It was a pleasantly unexpected response from a class of low-income African American and Latino high schoolers taking their first college course as part of a brand-new Major League Baseball recreational and educational program.

Grass Hemmert’s students are among a group of teenagers that has been spending the past month taking courses with SMC professors in the morning and playing baseball and softball in the afternoons at Major League Baseball’s beautiful facility in Compton.

The Urban Youth Academy – a sparkling $10 million, 10-acre baseball complex at Compton College that looks as if it could be any major league team’s spring training facility – just opened in February but is already demonstrating it is as committed to classroom instruction as it is to creating a field of dreams for budding players.

On June 26, two professors and two counselors from SMC started teaching college-level courses to a group of about 40 students ranging in age from 14 to 17.

Students have spent their mornings four days a week taking either interpersonal communication or English and three days a week in study skills classes with SMC counselors Patricia Ramos and Leigie Henderson.

The SMC classes end Friday and a graduation ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. Monday, July 31 at the academy, located at 901 E. Artesia Blvd. in Compton.

“SMC is the real deal. If it weren’t for SMC, we wouldn’t have nearly the program we have,” says Darrell Miller, academy director and former Angel player. “SMC’s teachers are amazing. They have the passion and have gone above and beyond the call of duty.”

On a recent day, students in Grass Hemmert’s communication class were doing a group exercise and learning about cooperation versus competition, while teenagers in Melody Nightingale’s writing course were in a Compton College computer lab, revising or writing essays.

“Mrs. Nightingale is a wonderful person,” said 16-year-old Trevor Oliver, an outgoing student at Dominguez High School in Compton who plays outfield on his high school team and wants to go to UCLA or USC on a baseball scholarship.

“She tells us how to break down sentences and teaches us about grammar and good writing.”
Nightingale has had her students write essays on a number of thorny issues, including role models, goals and peer pressure. For these students, the essays reveal the kind of tough life they live.

For example,
Frankie Jones, a 16-year-old center fielder from Fremont High School in Los Angeles who hopes to get drafted by a Major League team next year, wrote an essay entitled “The Day I Decided to Cruise with My Friends Was the Biggest Mistake in My Life.” In the essay, he describes how cruising and partying led to almost getting caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting.

When Grass Hemmert asked how many of her students have known someone who died as a result of gang violence, about three-quarters of the class raised their hands.

Grass Hemmert has been inspired by her students. “The students are interested, engaged, on-time and do all their homework,” she said. “They are really learning.”

After attending classes in the morning and taking a lunch break, the young SMC students have been spending two hours in the afternoon getting intensive baseball and softball training, including workouts outdoors and in a weight-training room in the academy clubhouse, which has equipment donated by the Oakland A’s and other teams.

The 12,000-square-foot clubhouse also has locker rooms, a training room complete with a whirlpool to help injured players, batting cages, and more. The academy complex also features a practice field and the showcase field, complete with scoreboard, 92-seat grandstand, dugouts and lights.

The academy is operating a variety of free baseball, academic and vocational programs year-round for youngsters ranging in age from 8 to 17. Almost all the children and teenagers live within 10 miles of the academy, including the communities of South Los Angeles, Carson, Lynwood, Paramount, Long Beach and Compton. All are low-income, most are boys and the ethnic split is about 60 percent-40 percent African American-Latino.

Academy officials say that while the program is likely to foster the development of Major League players – for example, Lyndon Poole started playing at the academy in June and was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers July 5 – the organization is focused on much more than baseball skills. Academics, character building and healthy socialization are equally – if not more – important, they say.

For example, students take specialized clinics in non-playing disciplines such as sports journalism, turf management, statistics, scouting, umpiring and player development. And access to computers as well as college courses will foster academic achievement.

“The youth have to learn that when they pick up the ball, they also have to pick up the book,” says SMC Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Robert Adams, who was instrumental in setting up the summer SMC program at the academy.

Meanwhile, the baseball program is thriving in many ways, including games set up between talented academy players and members of the Houston Astros scout team, as well as the upcoming Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) World Series scheduled for Aug. 3-10 at the academy.

And SMC professors say they believe they are reaching their students, and interviews with students reinforce that belief.

“The things Professor Hemmert teaches us I can use outside the class,” says 15-year-old Erica Burnett, who attends the Los Angeles Adventist Academy. “She has taught me to control what I say.”

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