MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
When Alexis and Imhotep Coleman decided to co-found Urban Scholar Academy in Inglewood, it was for practical and personal reasons.
Both Kansas City natives and Howard University graduates, when the Colemans moved to Los Angeles, they wanted to create something educational for their young sons and for others.
A teacher, Alexis Coleman realized some of the children at her school were not at the appropriate reading level. She wanted to do something about it and decided to include an education-based academic-tutoring program for the kids on weekends.
“I noticed as an educator, kids didn’t have background knowledge on various topics,” said Alexis Coleman, the academy’s executive director. “I told Imhotep we should start a weekend program. We decided to start with a Saturday enrichment program in the fall of 2012.”
Alexis Coleman, who has a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and a master’s in curriculum and instruction, said the program started with 12 students on Saturdays for three hours.
“I taught a fun math lesson,” she said. “We then incorporated field trips on Saturday at a local recreational center. We did that for three years. We transitioned into after-school tutoring and homework assistance.”
Urban Scholar Academy’s mission is to transform the lives of urban youth through academic enrichment and community service opportunities for students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
“When we started we only had 12 students,” Alexis Coleman said, estimating that the program has served about 500 young people in the nine years it has operated.
“At the time, we didn’t offer tutoring. Now we offer tutoring. It’s our number one program. We suit the needs of the request of our parents. We create new and innovative programs. We’ve inspired other organizations to start tutoring programs.”
Imhotep Coleman said the kids in the program are “like every other kid” and are “bused from everywhere.”
“You have kids going to eight different schools,” said Imhotep Coleman, partnership and fundraising director, who also works in the entertainment industry. “Private schools, charters and schools from the other side of town. They are regular kids.
“The main age range is a Black girl in the fifth grade who is finishing her multiplication and fractions and whose grandmother, auntie or mother is picking her up. She has a love for art and is a smart Black girl. If I had to look over 10 years, it would be that child,” he added.
Alexis Coleman said some of the students are two to four grade levels behind their peers.
“The diagnostic assessments reveal a lot,” she said. “Metric-wise we serve 98% African Americans, 2% Latino, 60% female, and 40% male.”
Alexis Coleman said the academy’s “whole learner” approach includes tapping into a student’s academic capabilities to develop stronger knowledge and tapping into their spirit to teach them the skills they need to serve in the community.
“It’s also about the physical approach to involve them in physical fitness activities,” she said. “We’re trying to develop a health and wellness component for our students. COVID has been traumatic mentally and physically.”
Since 2015, the Urban Scholar Academy has completed 9,000 individual tutorial sessions through its homework club and tutoring program.
About 80% of the academy’s revenue is fees for services.
“The program is at a reasonable cost,” Alexis Coleman said. “It’s at a rate where we can make a livable wage. About 20% comes from small grants or donations from board members. We got a large amount of funding due to COVID. We actually had a great year financially.”
“We give them an environment where they are eager to learn,” said Imhotep Coleman, who received his bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film from Howard University. “When we transform, we take you out of the environment and open your mind. It’s education. It’s doing community service.”
He said the academy has park cleanups, beach cleanups, street cleanups, meal giveaways and turkey giveaways.
“We’re teaching the connection to family and community,” Alexis Coleman said. “The kids love that. There is collectivism when you do it together. Kids have a responsibility for the community they live in. We tell them, this is yours. It’s another level of accountability.”
Alexis Coleman is proud of the community support.
“We are not corporate endowed or have heavy grants,” she said. “This is what African Americans can do with the power of resources. We are becoming a light in Inglewood. We want to have a lasting impact on our community.”
Urban Scholar Academy offers winter, spring and summer camps in an effort to help parents navigate through those times.
COVID forced it to transition to online tutoring and to accommodate parents with limited in-person distance learning support. Throughout the pandemic, about 27 students actually attended the academy every day, receiving meals and academic support.
“We actually started in-person tutoring in April 2020,” Alexis Coleman said. “It lasted for two months then we started a summer camp. Then we came back to support the students in August. We have had our doors open the entire time with safety protocols in place.”
Soon, the Colemans will introduce a new program.
Imhotep Coleman, a television and film associate director, put his entertainment career on pause for a while to jump-start academy. He has always wanted to create a pipeline through an Urban Scholar Film Academy for high school students.
“I want to teach film aesthetic,” said Coleman, who has worked as an assistant director on “Scandal,” “Southland,” “911,” music videos and commercials. “It would be a two-year program where they will do shorts, PSAs and documentaries.
“We haven’t had a program specifically for high school students,” he added. “We don’t want to export our time elsewhere. Sometimes we know the skills but take them elsewhere. We’re going to launch a film festival. We want to create an incubator here that will be community-driven. Opportunities will be available.”
Just before COVID, Urban Scholar Academy moved to a new 5,100-square-foot facility that includes three suites, a main suite, a sitting area for students, couches, murals, a STEM computer lab, a full kitchen, classrooms, ample parking, an eating area and the highlight is an arcade section.
“We have real arcades,” Alexis Coleman said. “We have game consoles and a concession stand. We spoil the kids. We have Fun Fridays for students who complete their requirements during the week.”
Another building is designed for children in kindergarten through the third grade and has a spaceship theme, a solar system theme, murals, and astronauts, all in an effort to get the students to increase their knowledge about being inquisitive and digging deeper about life.
“Service is always our calling,” Imhotep Coleman said. “We both have parents who are socially conscious. We grew up in households always informed about service to others and being a servant. As we climb, we reach back.”
The Colemans believe Urban Scholar Academy is “special.”
“We’re about quality over quantity,” Alexis Coleman said. “For a lot of nonprofits, it’s about how many people you can serve and how fast. Ours is how deep can we serve.
“We’re not parachuting in from a corporate headquarters. We walk the same streets and we know the grandmothers. This is an extension of family. This is our community. We’re invested. We live down the street.”
“We have communal needs of coming together and knowing parents are going through the same things,” Imhotep Coleman added. “We wanted to create an environment of learning and love. It’s an intimate, boutique program. This is mom and pop, kitchen table education.”
“I love teaching Black and brown children,” Alexis Coleman said. “We try to implement a culturally relevant curriculum. We do an African-American perspective and a Hispanic perspective.”
Imhotep Coleman said the academy is not a passion project.
“It’s our life’s work now,” he said. “Passion has fueled us. God provides and His spirit leads us.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.