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On a winter night in 2002, Christopher Yanov sat with a handful of eighth and ninth graders and college-student tutors in the Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana. The one-story cinderblock building in Golden Hill, near San Diego’s downtown, looked more like a fortress than a church. Iron grillwork protected the windows; the door was a slab of hardened steel.
Yanov and the tutors and students sat around two tables in room that faced the street. The kids settled into their homework, and the room was quiet, punctuated with occasional murmured consultations.

Reality Changers was eight months old, with a census of twelve, six boys and six girls Yanov had recruited at Ray A. Kroc Middle School, where he worked as a substitute teacher. Students were expected to come every week, but attendance was spotty. Tonight just six showed up. He wasn’t sure the program was going to fly.

A rock clattered against the bars. Heads snapped up from books. Another rock crashed on the bars, so hard the glass rattled. A direct hit would shatter the pane. Salvo after salvo of pebbles followed, clanging against steel and glass.

Then the shouts.

“Kiss-ass schoolboys! Little pussies!

“How come we’re out here and not in there!”

“Hey, Chris! You forgotten your friends?”

An angry face pushed between the bars and pressed against the glass. “Chris! You only talking to the smart kids now?”

The tutors looked at Yanov, eyes wide. They were freshmen from UC San Diego, worlds away from the Iglesia; they hadn’t bargained for this. The kids shot sidelong looks at each other and tried to look cool. Perla Garcia knew the guys outside; she wished they’d go home. Jorge Narvaez kept his head down and pretended to read. He hoped they’d be gone by the time he had to walk to the bus stop.

Just ignore it and keep on working, Yanov told them. They’ll get bored and quit.

“Losers! Wait’ll you get out here. We’ll fix you pussies!”

The rocks kept clattering. The shouts got louder. Kids stopped even pretending to study.

Yanov rolled his eyes and exhaled with exasperation. He stood up and walked out the front door in his shirtsleeves. The night was cold; in the light from the street lamp he could see his breath.He stood a shade under six feet, shoulders squared, chin high, dark hair and beard cropped close.

A dozen eighth and ninth graders stood under the street lamp. All of them lived in the neighborhood and most went to Kroc. Their heads were shaved and they wore the cholo uniform of baggy jeans that dragged on the sidewalk, and oversize black nylon jackets. He’d invited every one of them to join Reality Changers.

They’d have to bring their grades up to a 3.0. Come to meetings every week, for tutoring and work on study skills, and lessons on values and life skills. Instead of a gang, be part of a group where everyone was aiming for college, and kids helped each other. If they stayed with the program through high school, Yanov guaranteed they’d get into college, and they’d have the scholarships they needed.

He’d worked especially hard on Jonny Villafuerte. Jonny lived across the street from Yanov, a few blocks east of the Iglesia. He was a sweet, soft-looking boy with a shy smile and lush, dark hair that fell over his forehead. His notebooks overflowed with drawings of cars and characters from video games and words in bulging, kinetic letters. Yanov knew him from honors algebra, but lately he’d seen him at the coral tree in the courtyard at Kroc, where the guys who were on the way to joining a gang hung out. The Lomas26 gang ran the streets in Golden Hill, and they were leaning on Jonny to join. Last fall he shaved his head and started to dress like them. Yanov hoped that he
hadn’t made up his mind. If he didn’t get to Jonny soon, Lomas26 would.

Now here was Jonny, throwing rocks. “Hey Chris, no fair,” he yelled. “You didn’t let us in!”

“You guys know you’re invited,” he said. “You just got to get your grades up.”

“Aw-w, man.”

“Kids inside did.”

“We know you better. You’re our guy. You should just let us in.”

“When you get your 3.0, we’ll be glad to have you. Tonight’s not a ‘no,’ it’s a ‘not yet.’ See you around.” He waved and walked back into the church.

Rocks rang the bars like chimes. The kids and tutors were rattled. Not much homework got done that night, and the tutors chalked up the night as a loss.

Yanov couldn’t stop grinning. Those guys wanted in. He knew he had something.

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Grit and Hope tells the story of five inner-city Hispanic students who start their college applications in the midst of the country’s worst recession and of Reality Changers, the program that offers academic tutoring and lessons in self-discipline, grit, and generosity to help them become the first in their families to go college. This year the seniors must keep up their grades in Advanced Placement courses, write compelling essays for their applications, and search for scholarships to fund their dreams. One lives in a garage and struggles to get enough to eat. Two are academic standouts, but are undocumented, ineligible for state and federal financial assistance. One tries to keep his balance as his mother battles a life-threatening diagnosis; another bonds with her younger sister when their parents’ substance abuse threatens to derail their plans for college.

The book also follows Christopher Yanov, Reality Changers’ youthful, charismatic founder, who wants to grow Reality Changers into national visibility. He’s doubled the program’s size, and hired new employees, but he hasn’t anticipated that growing means he’ll have to surrender some control, and hand off responsibilities to his new staff. It’s the story of a highly successful, yet flawed organization that must change in order to grow in a year that’s as critical for the program’s future as it is for the seniors.

Told with deep affection and without sentimentality, the students’ stories show that although poverty and cultural deprivation seriously complicate youths’ efforts to launch into young adulthood, the support of a strong program can make a critical difference.

University of California Press, 2016

Reviews

Grit and Hope shines light on the ways in which poverty, under-resourced schools and a cruel and relentless immigration system frame young people’s lives. Barbara Davenport offers an up-close examination of policy failures and how young people at the margins confront life’s barriers—not always successfully but with the tenacity required to ultimately triumph.”
Roberto G. Gonzales, Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of
Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America

Grit and Hope gives readers an intimate perspective into the educational challenges of inner-city Latino high school students. Many books have been written about the challenges of inner city students. What Davenport offers is in-depth insight into these students’ lives as a result of her day-to-day reporting following their successes and failures.

Miles Corwin, University of California, Irvine and author of The Killing Season and And Still We Rise.

Grit and Hope provides an invaluable street-level examination of the effects on education of income inequality and citizenship status.” Arthur Salm, former books editor, San Diego Union Tribune

For more information about Reality Changers, visit them at  http://RealityChangers.org