For high school students from lower-income families who are weighing opportunities for a better future, finding an entry-point into the middle class is becoming harder each year. It's a social stratosphere that is decreasing almost as fast as the population is expanding.
Forty years ago, the middle class was 61% of adults, but today it's about 51%, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. This shrinking middle class negatively impacts the psyche of millions of inner-city Los Angeles youth as hope for a better future wanes.
Historically, the path to the middle class has been education. However, college is an investment that can place students into astronomical debt as the average starting salary for four-year college graduates is $44,000. With expensive tuition, a 17% poverty rate and fierce competition over jobs, where can a high school student turn for a better life?
Jobs with the Los Angeles Police Department and other government agencies are excellent paths for lower-income people to gain access into the middle class. Police officers earn an average of $56,260 per year as of May 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During Step 1 and Step 6, which includes training and initial-active duty, LAPD officers earn between $47,982 and $62,389, depending on an officer's level of education. First-level LAPD sergeants, detectives and lieutenants make between $94,774 and $117,742 per year. Meanwhile, the average private-sector job has leveled out at around $43,980 per year.
That doesn't mean a college education is not valuable, but it's clear the police department has become a valuable way for hard-working young people to enter the middle class without a four-year degree.
That's why the Police Orientation Preparation Program (POPP) was created. POPP is a one-of-a-kind exploratory educational experience that places career-bound, law enforcement students in an established LAPD training environment. Students graduate with an associate's degree and gain real-life experience as they prepare for a career in law enforcement. POPP students who move onto the LAPD start with a salary of $45,000 and have the chance to earn a six-figure salary within five years. Police work in L.A. also includes a guaranteed pension, excellent health benefits and a compressed work schedule of three, 12-hour shifts per week.
The program is designed to place members from the community who possess an understanding of the complicated social and cultural idiosyncrasies into roles of leadership and authority in their old neighborhoods. The idea is to help members of the community find paths to better fiscal opportunities and change their neighborhoods from within.
The idea came to fruition in 2009 when 13 high school seniors and 18 college freshmen started taking West Los Angeles College courses at the Ahmanson Recruit Training Center. POPP has now grown to include the full endorsement of the LAPD, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD). Many of the students who attend POPP receive fee waivers because they live near the federal poverty line. POPP also offers privately funded tutoring at no additional cost.
The boost to self-esteem of POPP students is dramatic. Most say they never thought they were smart enough to even go to college—let alone graduate with an associate's degree. The first graduates are just now taking to the streets of L.A. as police officers. One notable graduate speaks both Farsi and Spanish on the job as he connects with his old neighborhood daily, just the way the program is intended to work.
POPP is a one-of-a-kind prototype program that should serve as a national model in other cities. Part of our duty as teachers, leaders and educators is to ensure the American Dream remains attainable—that the opportunity to advance and grow as a person is not an illusory concept available to a dwindling percentage.
It's our duty to afford the young people I see every day from Compton to Inglewood—who can't even imagine where to turn for guidance—a better life and a safer community.
Roberta Weintraub is a former president and 14-year member of the LAUSD School Board and founder and executive director at the Police Orientation Preparation Program (POPP), which provides high-school seniors and college students with a four semester, fully sequenced program, leading to an associate's degree and a career in law enforcement.