She stands just 5 foot 2, with a slight frame and soft voice, but to her family, Alfa Lopez is a giant. The Los Angeles teen lives in a low-income area where teenagers are tempted by drugs and the high school drop-out rate is 50 percent. As she matter-of-factly puts it, "It's not the best neighborhood." Alfa, though, has big plans and big dreams.
This 16-year-old has her sights set on becoming the first member of her family to go to college. "I try to get straight A's to make my family proud," she told ABC News, " and to show myself that I can do this and that I can work hard."
She is succeeding with the help of an innovative program run by the University of Southern California. Called the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), the program offers intensive classes and tutoring to hundreds of low-income children who live in the shadow of the university. "It's a long road, believe me," said Kim Thomas-Barrios, who is the program's executive director. "We start with them in the sixth grade."
Today Alfa came to Washington, D.C., to tell her story at a day-long summit on children and families. This first- generation American, whose mom works as a housekeeper and certified nurse's assistant, and whose father is a supervisor at a convalescent home, stood up before a crowd at the summit, to introduce Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
"It may be cliché to say "only in America," but I'm here to prove that it's true," said Alfa. "I'm so honored to be able to attend today's event and introduce the secretary of education."
Secretary Duncan applauded Alfa as an example of what students from poorer neighborhoods can accomplish with the right help, and he bemoaned "all of the talent of the country that we leave on the sidelines." Duncan touted the president's plan to help states expand preschool classes. "There is no better investment we can make than high quality early childhood education."
Programs like the one Alfa attends also provide critical support for older students. Participants, currently 721 middle and high school students, begin their day at USC, attending English and math classes taught by high school teachers. Then it's off to their regular high school for the rest of the day. It's back to USC for tutoring three nights a week, and Saturday morning classes for additional academic support and college prep work.
The experience opens up the students to a new world of possibilities. "Everyone in the University campus is about the business of learning," said Thomas-Barrios. "They are taking classes down the hall, down the hall from college students. I call it my college brainwashing."
Alfa has no illusions about how much this program means to her. "It's life-changing," she said, "without it I don't know where I'd be. I wouldn't have the same opportunities, and I don't think I would be able to face the hurdles that maybe college would bring to me."
The NAI program has an impressive record. "All of our students graduate from high school, that's a no brainer for them. Their goal is to go college, period," said Thomas-Barrios. Once they're at college, three-quarters go on to get a diploma.
It's the kind of success that Ann O'Leary would like to see replicated nationwide. O'Leary heads up the Children and Families Program at the Next Generation, a non-profit think tank based in California. The group is launching a national initiative called "Too Small to Fail," a campaign to get the government and private industry to focus on the needs of America's children. O'Leary points out that nearly 22 percent of children in the U.S. live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of seniors. "That's because we made a very big and important commitment to seniors," she said, "and we haven't made the same commitment to kids. We think it's time we did."
O'Leary and Alfa and Thomas-Barrio's went to Washington, D.C., to try to jump start that effort as part of this one-day summit, hosted by Next Generation and Washington Post Live. "It makes no sense not to invest in the next generation," said O'Leary. "The way we've done it right now is just to abandon the next generation."
New government funding for programs for children could be a tough sell in this age of budget cuts. O'Leary sees it as a "critically important time" to be in D.C. With sequestration threatening funding to Head Start programs, for one, O'Leary says, "It's a time to highlight that this is just no way to do business."
As for Alfa, this is her first trip to Washington, D.C., and the trip is something this first-generation American could never have imagined.
But what really has the attention of this high school sophomore is her college dream. Alfa has a passion for math, and hopes to use that talent as an aerospace engineer or a pediatric neurosurgeon. She is eyeing MIT or Johns Hopkins. The universities might want to get ready. Alfa Lopez will graduate from high school in 2015.