Project ALERTA founder Lucia Mayerson-David had only one regret as she walked across the stage in the White House’s East Room with fifth-grader Noelia Lugo, ready to pose for a photograph with First Lady Michelle Obama.
She wished that all of her Project ALERTA children could have been there for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Mayerson-David and Noelia, a student at the Hernandez School, were at the White House on October 20 to receive the 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award—the highest honor an after-school and out-of-school program can receive—on behalf of Project ALERTA.
“I felt greatly honored and proud to be there,” Mayerson-David said. “This award is for all of us in the program.”
Project ALERTA, based at the University of Massachusetts Boston for the past 22 years, is an enrichment program for Latino and English-language learner third to fifth graders in Boston Public Schools.
ALERTA was one of only 15 programs chosen from 458 nominations nationwide for the prestigious award (formerly known as the Coming Up Taller Award). It was the only program in Massachusetts to win this year. Project ALERTA received a plaque and $10,000 grant from the award.
The program has come a long way since its start in 1988.
Director of the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT), Mayerson-David ’71 founded Project ALERTA as a way to combat dropout rates for Latino students in Boston that were approaching over 50 percent. She had started the Talented and Gifted program (TAG) three years earlier to reach students in the sixth grade through high school. But Mayerson-David wanted to go further than that. She knew that to keep these children in school – and see them attend college – she needed to reach out to them at an even younger age.
And as a Chilean immigrant herself, she saw these children going through the same difficulties she had.
“When we first started Project ALERTA, some people asked, ‘What are you doing?’ But I believe we’ve shown that reaching these students early does make a difference,” Mayerson-David said. “We give these children confidence and drive, and some of these children, for the first time, are hearing that they can succeed. There is no such thing as ‘I can’t’ in this program.”
“History taught us these kids don’t make it unless they have a very strong support system,” she said.
More than 3,000 students have come through the program.
ALERTA is held after-school at seven Boston Public Schools and at the UMass Boston campus during school vacations. The program weaves together core academic subjects with activities like theater, painting, scientific experiments, creative writing, and dance. Boston Public Schools teachers, many who have been with the program since its beginning, work with students to help them gain admission into the best middle and high schools in Boston, including competitive exam schools.
“We respect the students. They feel respected. Their language is respected. Their culture is respected,” Mayerson-David said. “They feel very comfortable here. They feel loved, which is what a lot of these students really need.”
UMass Boston will hold a rally celebrating Project ALERTA’s national recognition on November 16 at 4 p.m. on the first floor of the Campus Center. All are invited to attend.
“Project ALERTA’s recognition as a national leader in youth arts and humanities programming brings honor to UMass Boston’s mission to broaden access to higher education,” Chancellor Motley said. “In the lives of the young English-language learners they serve, we see a new generation of future college students.”
TAG and ALERTA will also celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary at a gala event, "TAG & ALERTA: 25 Years of Transforming Lives,” on December 4 in the UMass Boston Campus Center Ballroom. For tickets and more information, visit the gala website.
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