On a playground in Watts, surrounded by barbed wire, kids are playing and laughing. They are immersed in the joy of the moment, insulated from what is going on around them. They are part of a program called Urban Compass. Its mission is going into the grittiest, low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods to keep kids in school and out of gangs, typically the only other viable alternative for survival.

Urban Compass is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2015. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots, which were caused by high unemployment, below-average schools, and inferior living conditions, according to a report published by a commission that investigated the riots. These riots catalyzed awareness that more resources were needed in the Watts neighborhood. In the decades that followed the riots, this awareness has continued to grow. Urban Compass was formed to help elementary school students specifically.

Over the past decade, Urban Compass has served approximately 300 kids from kindergarten through fifth grade who attend 112th Street School next to the Nickerson Gardens housing project, one of the largest in the country. It has recruited approximately 250 volunteers from Verbum Dei High School, in the same vicinity, each year. These high school students serve as mentors and tutors, in addition to student volunteers from Loyola Marymount University and USC.

Urban Compass was founded by Patrick McNicholas, a plaintiffs’ attorney at his family’s law firm, McNicholas & McNicholas LLP, and Don Morgan, a community development consultant who teaches public policy at USC. Their model of cultivating partnerships is a big reason for Urban Compass’ longevity, McNicholas said.

“We went to one of the most difficult neighborhoods in the country and were able to find people with staying power and create an organization that has not only been supportive and successful of the community that it’s in, but it’s also a model that can be replicated easily throughout the state and the country,” McNicholas said.

The model of Urban Compass it to partner a Jesuit high school with an under-served elementary school and provide tutoring, mentoring and enrichment activities. In Watts, the program is provided with free administrative space at Verbum Dei and free use of its fields as well, according to Executive Director Xochiltl Bravo. The program targets kids in elementary schools, since gang recruitment typically starts in middle school, according to Program Director Kenneth Sparks.

“Some of their siblings may already be involved with gangs,” Sparks said.

Rev. Michael Mandela, the president of Verbum Dei and a board member of Urban Compass, testified to the support
Urban Compass has brought to the elementary students who participate in the program.

“This is 10 years of academic help and social engagement that these kids have had with each other in a non-threatening atmosphere, which is unusual for kids that come from the kind of pressure-cooker atmosphere that exists in a housing development,” he said.

The Verbum Dei students who serve as volunteers also benefit, Mandela said. They come from challenging backgrounds as well, he said, and it gives them their first opportunity to give back.

“That’s part of our value system,” Mandela said. “They become ‘men for others.’ So they’re practicing (being of service) in a very concrete way.”

Urban Compass operates during the school year on week-day afternoons and hosts fields trips and activities once a month on the weekends. It also provides a four-week summer enrichment camp. One of the field days took place in October when student volunteers from Verbum Dei led the kids through a series of games on the high schools’ fields.

One of those volunteers, 17-year-old Huber White, remembers how easy it was to find trouble when he was a bored middle-schooler. Now, he tries to help these kids avoid that.

Huber has made a special connection with 7-year-old Jonathan Pena, who said he’s learned a lot from Huber.

“I learned to not go where you’re not supposed to go, because if you go there, you might get hurt,” Pena said.
Sparks said Urban Compass is so woven into the neighborhood that when there was a recent episode of violence, a parent gave him the heads-up before he heard about it on the news.

This kind of community intimacy is also exemplified by Bravo, who had experience working in the Watts neighborhood during college at Loyola Marymount, before moving on to Columbia University for graduate work. Her background is in social work and gang prevention.

“I believe very strongly in providing high-quality services to kids who need it the most,” Bravo said. “If there weren’t programs like this, what would happen? So it’s motivating to provide the best services we can for the kids and their families.”

She has seen more awareness of the need for gang-prevention programs and more resources directed to these programs since Urban Compass started, she said.

“There’s more collaboration,” she said. “Everyone is realizing that we can’t do this alone.”

Urban Compass only takes 50 kids into its program each year and uses a cohort model, Bravo said. A cohort is a group of students that is taught as one group, instead of individually. Educational research has shown that cohorts cultivate “an active, interactive and dynamic setting for students to grow their knowledge and skills,” according to a website of Colorado Christian University. Only 50 children are served each year by Urban Compass, so it can maximize the impact it has on them, Bravo added.

“Could we serve 200? Yes,” Bravo said. “But could we serve them in the way we’re doing now? No.”

In terms of the future, McNicholas and Morgan are looking to expand the program to reach more kids in under-served areas of Los Angeles. This will enable them to integrate the lessons they’ve learned over the last 10 years in Watts, Morgan said.

“The community and families in Watts have taught us so much about how to partner with them, and we are eternally grateful for those lessons,” Morgan said. “We will build the next site on those lessons to serve children better than ever before.”

They also intend to bring Urban Compass to under-served areas of Northern California. They are currently conducting a feasibility study and checking out potential locations to see where the best fit would be, McNicholas said.

The duo is also actively working to secure three-year pledges from a group of donors who are “eager to see this model spread across under-served communities,” Morgan said. To donate to Urban Compass’ development efforts, please contact Executive Director Xochiltl Bravo at [email protected] or (323) 383-7588.