Here in this corner of City Heights, busted childhoods are rewritten. The stories are reframed, polished and packaged as college entrance essays, winning tickets that get them out, anywhere but here.

“When bad things happen to kids, it makes for a great personal statement,” said Reality Changers president and founder Chris Yanov.

At 35, Yanov has been named by San Diego Metropolitan magazine as a new civic power broker and has helped 485 low-income or at-risk students find $40 million in scholarships.

And the Mid-City after-school tutoring program is always looking for the next good story.

Yanov has a knack for betting on the troubled teens and coming out ahead. Longshots like Eduardo Corona, the gangster turned program poster child who now serves as a program director.

At age 21, Corona has already mastered the art of a well-placed pause when he leads class, so that his words fall softly, affecting even the hardened, ambivalent teenagers. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who faced six years in jail when he was 14 for tearing apart a classroom, just for fun.

If you saw the PBS documentary he was featured in, you might already know all this. But you might not know that it was San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten’s school he vandalized, back when Marten was the school’s principal. Marten was one of the first people to find the carnage, the paint spilled across the floor, the broken computers, the remains of the classroom snake that had been set on fire and left to die.

Marten has since become one of the program’s — and Corona’s — high-profile advocates. She introduced the PBS documentary at its San Diego premiere, testifying to the changes she’s seen Reality Changers inspire.

YouTube video

It’s beautiful irony, but it’s not so uncommon around here.

Land on Reality Changers’ website and you’ll see Bertin, the kid who used to stretch a bowl of rice into a weeks’ worth of meals before he earned a $300,000 Gates Scholarship. Or Michael, who was homeless between the ages of 7 to17, then earned a $100,000 scholarship to UCLA.

Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has applauded the program, calling it a “model for the nation.”

It’s hard to argue that something unique is happening in City Heights. But what makes it work, and more importantly, can Yanov replicate its success and grow it into the large-scale model Duncan said it could become?

The Exclusivity Factor

Yanov counts the time he spent in college volunteering at a community youth group as one his life’s great failures.

Sure, he helped raise the students’ self-esteem, he said, but he found that the more he told students to not join gangs or do drugs, the more they fell into the lifestyle.

“Every time I talked about a negative issue, I legitimized it,” Yanov said. “It was like telling a kid on a tightrope not to look down. It’s well-intentioned advice, but they’re going to look down, fall,” he said.

Two lessons Yanov took away from that experience: Anti-drug talk is mostly just great advertising for drug dealers. And promotion is better than prevention.

In May 2001, Yanov set out to test his theory. He opened Reality Changers with four students and $300.  The goal was simple: to help the four students become first-generation college students. They decided they were only going to focus on college — not street life.

He found humble success at first. But when he expanded the program to 12 students, and told the other neighborhood kids they weren’t invited, “that’s when I really knew I had something.”

The first night the class met, neighborhood kids surrounded the old building where they studied, throwing rocks and trying to break down the door.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, these guys are trying to break into a Spanish-speaking church to study for three hours?’” said Yanov. “By telling them, ‘No you can’t come in,’ they wanted in. I wasn’t a psychology major, but I figured that out pretty quick.”

Even today, after the program has expanded to include more than 450 students at a time, the appearance of exclusivity is still an important element.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

The program’s waiting list is sometimes 300 students long, which as Yanov notes, can be a drawback as well as a strength.

“It’s good because it builds anticipation for students. It’s bad because students might have to wait a year, or even two years,” Yanov said.

The length of the waiting list is more practical than it is programmatic philosophy. Reality Changers employs 24 staff members, and runs the show on a $1.4 million budget. The bulk of that money is raised through fundraisers and individual donations.

The program pays rent for 1,470 square feet it rents from the San Diego Workforce Partnership. The agreement allows Reality Changers to share parts of the building such as the computer lab that job-seekers use to search for work during the day.

Even though, as Yanov points out, every student they save from dropping out keeps dollars in the school district’s pocket, they receive no regular government support.

Indeed. If the San Diego Unified School district spends around $7,600 on each student annually — per its attendance-based funding formula — for  every 40 ninth graders who Reality Changers prevents from dropping out, the districts keeps over $1 million.

Investing in Great Stories

Reality Changers has two main programs: The College Apps Academy, designed to help high school seniors prepare for college and apply for financial aid, and College Town, structured classes and one on one tutoring for eighth to 11th graders.

If College Town participants earn at least a 3.5 GPA, they’re eligible to attend a summer course at UCSD where they earn college credit.

Students can enter College Town in one of two ways. The first is a traditional seven-page application and essay.

The second route is more interesting. The program holds school-day assemblies at nearby middle schools and invites all eighth graders earning a 2.0 or below.

“As you’d expect, it’s madness at first,” Yanov said. “But we give them pizza and soda. We have name tags set for them. We treat them really respectfully, like they’re kings and queens. Some of them have never had their names written down for something positive in their entire lives.”

Then he turns them over to Corona. Once the reformed troublemaker tells his story, Yanov tells students that whoever gets their grades up the most in the next month are the newest members of the program.

“What we tell them is that they’ve been chosen because we’ve heard that they have great stories to tell. And if you’re living in City Heights with below a 2.0 GPA, the chances are pretty good that you do.”

It’s clear that Yanov has found a winning formula. But for now, the success can be replicated only to a certain extent. Effectively creating a college-going culture takes the right combination of students and trained staff, he said.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

The more appropriate question would be whether Yanov wants to expand the program.

“Ah. We’ve spent the past few years wrestling with that question,” said Yanov.

The College Apps Academy is more of a self-driving program based on a curriculum, and it’s ready to be further expanded. There are already 19 College Apps sections across San Diego, which accept up to 20 students at a time.

The immediate goal for College Town is to have a deeper impact, growing it to include more students, but still having it based at its City Heights headquarters.

The College Town model, for now, will stay put.

The folks across the nation who are already calling him, saying they want the program in their city, will just have to wait.

Playing the Longshots

Yanov, it seems, can’t lose. In fact, he won the money that he later used to open Reality Changers when he was a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune.”

Yanov grew up in Oxnard, near the strawberry fields and the migrant workers who tended them. Sometimes he wonders why he was so affected by the migrants’ disadvantages.

Yanov isn’t Latino, but his Spanish is agile. He can cuss, he can use slang, he can speak with parents and assuage all kinds of fears they have about their kids and the future.

He graduated college in 2 ½ years from UC San Diego, earning two degrees. But he’s no geek. He was even stabbed once while trying to de-escalate a domestic violence situation. That’s permanent street cred.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Barbara Davenport, who’s worked as an adolescent and child psychotherapist, was so impressed by Yanov that she’s spent the last few years working on a book about him.

“One of the things that’s very impressive about him is his willingness to play the longshots. These are kids, the wild, highly ambivalent boys, who people just roll their eyes at. But Chris goes after them, and it’s terribly endearing,” Davenport said.

Yanov is an amazingly savvy marketer, she said. In addition to Yanov’s ability to recognize the wonder kids, he realizes that the students’ stories create a sort of branding that benefits the kids as well as the organization.

Reality Changers regularly beats the fundraising drum by holding speech tournaments and spreading the word on students’ personal narratives.

For two straight years the group won VOSD’s Politifest Idea Tournament, in which a panel of judges heard proposals for civic improvement, and then the crowd voted on winners. No cash was awarded those years, but Reality Changers took away the trophies and bragging rights.

“But beyond that, the promise of what Chris is holding out: Show up, work your tail off, and in four years, you’ll get where you never dreamed of getting. That’s an offer of hope and promise,” Davenport said.

‘My Only Way Out’

Luck might ride with Yanov, but this isn’t a game to him. He doesn’t fear failure anymore — the program has had too many successes at this point — but he’s driven by the kid who is arrested for murder at age 16 and gets 40 years-to-life in prison.

The motivation isn’t hypothetical. Yanov’s prize possession is a piece of art that he keeps on his desk, drawn in prison by a former student who killed somebody in Clairemont a few years ago. By the time he and Yanov met, the student was too immersed in street life for Reality Changers to offer him enough support.

“How come the program wasn’t strong enough at that point to reach him?” Yanov said.

But the program wasn’t lost on 18-year-old Osvaldo Berumen, who currently attends Hoover High. Before he moved to San Diego, Berumen witnessed his brother murdered in East Los Angeles, a victim of gang violence.

“I knew my only way out was through education,” he said. “I’ve overcome this. This program’s helped me overcome this.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Tutors helped him rewrite and polish his personal statement for college essays, which he said helped him come to terms with his brother’s death. He’s written over 10 drafts.

“In order for me to understand how my past shaped my personality, I have to write about it,” he said.

In writing it all down on paper, he can step away from it, and realize he’s separate from his past.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified a publication that wrote about Chris Yanov. The publication was San Diego Metropolitan.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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