NAI Scholars (Courtesy photo)

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2020 the overall college enrollment rate for 18-24-year-olds was at 40% pre-pandemic. Within the same year, the enrollment rate for African American students was 36%, a 1% decrease from 2019. In late August 2021, adults 18 years old and over had reported plans to attend college in the fall, but later expressed those plans had been canceled. 48% of potential students shared the most common reason for their cancellations was not being able to pay for educational expenses because of drastic changes to income from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of Southern California (USC) is combating those statistics to help increase and complete college enrollment for Black students with the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). The NAI annually prepares more than 1,000 6th-12th grade students from low-income households in surrounding neighborhoods, in the south and east Los Angeles areas, for admission and graduation from college. Majority of USC NAI scholars will become first-generation college students.

The 2019-2020 school year marked a pivotal moment for the initiative as the program had the largest class of graduating students with a total of 94 high school seniors, including the first cohort from east Los Angeles, since it’s expansion seven years ago. Each scholar attended college in the fall, increasing the number of graduating scholars to more than 1,200. Now over 1,400 students have completed the NAI and are enrolled in college, with 36% attending USC. Partnering with the initiative, USC is dedicated to the advancement of Black students and closing the educational gap by reinforcing student’s academic goals and working closely with parents/ guardians.

Related Links:

COE – College Enrollment Rates (

USC’s Life-Changing College-Prep Program for Local Youth Receives Transformative Gift – Los Angeles Sentinel (

Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative – Communities (

FIght On! | USC McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative

In recent interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, the NAI’s program director Kim Thomas-Barrios, entrepreneur and recruiter Brigette E. Kidd, and parent and program alumni Daryl Street, shared their experiences along with the highlights and challenges of helping students pursue higher education.

L.A. native Kim Thomas-Barrios is Associate Senior Vice President of USC’s Educational Partnerships, USC University Relations, and NAI’s program director since 2002. Barrios has been involved in education for over 37 years and began her career as a secondary science teacher at middle and high schools in the Los Angeles School District. She has led school science department and in 1994, assisted with opening the 32nd Street/ USC Performing Arts Magnet School for grades K-12.

Kim Thomas-Barrios (Courtesy Photo)

When asked about the NAI and some of her personal experiences amidst the program’s success, Barrios shared, “the pandemic didn’t help, but we’re really trying our best to be where African American families are. It is our dear wish to continue offering a program with great diversity. Now we have the opportunity to expand to the Hyde Park area, and further west to Leimert Park. We’ve been working hard talking to parents and younger students asking, ‘who wants to go to college?’ Their imaginations get ignited so profoundly when we talk about the ones that have gone before them, so we bring alumni of the program who are in college now or who have graduated to come and talk to them. We also work very closely with the parents in our programs, we have the Family Development institute. Once the student is accepted into high school it’s game on because their grades count from that point on for college.”

The NAI Family Development Institute offers seminars for parents, guardians, or advocates of NAI scholars. Students are more likely to succeed in school when their parents or caregivers are involved in their education. The institute encourages parents to also commit to their child’s journey to higher education. For scholars to be eligible for NAI, their parents must attend topic seminars that include adolescent/ child development, effective communication, creating a positive learning environment in the home, fostering educational success, and conflict resolution. In addition to issues of special concern to students and parents of seniors, seminars about the college application process and financial aid are also available during the program.

Barrios continued to explain, “we want to make sure parents have the coaching and information they need immediately to look ahead when it comes to college. It’s a lock-step academic pathway and once they get to senior year, they have every single class they need. We work very closely with the schools we partner with. A partnership means we are requesting something as well as giving something, it’s worked for 30 plus years, and we hope to be around 30 more. For me, growing up in an African American community and household, we all stuck together. Our program ensures that the African American students in LAUSD schools we partner with, don’t feel left behind because it’s a smaller number of African American students at the school sites. We are very focused and intentional with reaching out in ways that are familiar to make sure the information is reaching the parents.”

Entrepreneur and NAI recruiter, Brigette E. Kidd is also a Los Angeles native who advocates for students and underserved communities. In 2012, Kidd launched her consulting company, B. Kidd Consulting, focusing on education, training, and exposure, for agencies in healthcare, nonprofits, small businesses, and start-ups how to grow, thrive, and maintain their company. Her skills in consulting have been transferable working with the NAI to ensure students and parents are aware of available resources to help educate and prepare them for the program.

Brigette E. Kidd (Courtesy Photo)

Kidd shared her perspective on engaging with students and being of service to the community, “I’ve always been about community, it’s not where you live but how you live. I’ve worked with Ms. Barrios on the Kid Watch Program and the Family of Schools Program before I received my graduate degree and started my own company. So, when there was an opportunity to come back and continue to give to the community, I got involved with the Neighborhood Academic Initiative program to help expand to reach more African Americans to make sure they get the same opportunities as other individuals to have a choice where they attend school and not be detoured due to lack of resources. I am an advocate first.”

Initiative parent and alumni, Daryl Street, encourages parents to be committed to their child’s education on the college level, “Parents have to be willing to put in the work because the program provides all the information, services, and education that their children will need to progress in the program. During my time in the program as a parent, and president of the Family Development Institute, I spoke with a lot of parents that were unsure if their time and investment. But the excitement from the students getting accepted into multiple colleges was so moving during our meetings would bring us to tears. The challenge was the amount of time we had to commit for seven years but it was worth it and we were prepared.”

Daryl & Spencer Street, NAI Alumni (Courtesy Photo)

Son Spencer Street, second generation college student, completed the NAI program along with his online MBA program at the University of Redlands, and is expected to graduate April 22, 2023.

Since starting the NAI in 1991, the initiative continues to expand now with over 300 participating undergrad students and a 99% average of college acceptances. USC promises if students apply and are accepted to university, they receive a fully financed education package with no loans. Graduates of the program can also enroll in other prestigious universities across the country. Some NAI alumni have gone to attend Harvard, UCLA, U.C. Berkeley, and Stanford.

Now in its 30th year of preparing neighborhood students for college, the NAI is currently in the implementation stages to collaborate with students and parents in south and west Los Angeles, with the intent to grow to include more African American families. They are now in a formal partnership with two additional middle schools, Barack Obama Middle School, and Audubon Middle School to expand the college pathway. The program will co-locate their first south/ west cohort for 6th graders in the Spring of 2023.