LA Unified teens compete in district-wide talent contest

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Hundreds of teenagers from Los Angeles Unified schools are set to descend on the Paramount Studios lot tomorrow for a competition. The students participate in an after school program that imparts arts training along with leadership skills.

Bell High School junior Cynthia Rivera is the lead singer in the band Worn Down. On Friday morning they put the finishing touches on the song they’ll perform in competition. She and the other four members of the band prefer to rehearse after school during the Beyond the Bell program. "I think this is better because we have the support of adults. And you’re on your own when you’re in a garage band and like your parents are like, ‘you’re not good enough.’"

Guitarist Michael Velez agreed. "There’s times when you’re having trouble with something, like at home. You come to practice all mad. And they’re like, calm down, what happened. They talk to you and they just try to help you get out of that little madness they’re in, and try to understand why that happened, and how you can fix that."

Velez, Rivera and about 200 other Bell High students receive tutoring, music, and performing arts instruction through Beyond the Bell. The aim is to reduce smoking, violence, and truancy by offering teens social skills and placing them in leadership situations.

Advisor Gerardo Mungaray said his involvement has been as simple as advising the band in diplomacy when it came to one member’s behavior. "We’ll it’s not a matter of hurting his feelings. You’re personally invested in this and there’s four other people in your band now, what do you think is the best decision and how can you best approach it."

In Bell High's cavernous auditorium, Velez and Rivera practiced a pared-down version of the song they’ll compete with at the all-school district competition. It's called "With You" River said. It’s called with you and I wrote it about Michael Velez. It’s basically about the time we enjoy being together. And just being there, it’s the love of being together, I guess."

Rivera and Velez are a couple. Advisor Mungaray said the program is a reward for the effort students put in. "It’s a bargain that we have between me and them. They know that they can’t come in here two hours after school each day and just play their instruments."

Vocalist Rivera said she turned an academic corner last year after program monitors threatened to kick her out for bad grades. "My report card was almost all Fs, I’m not kidding, I tried to raise up the classes that I could, because it was in this last semester where I started really, really trying, getting all the help I could. I passed most of my classes and I’m really happy about that."

The band’s drummer, senior Joel Ramirez, said the program’s helped him overcome what he called academic laziness. "Yeah, it’s given me plenty of purpose and if I didn’t do good in school they probably wouldn’t allow me to come to the music program. It’s given me direction."

Ramirez said he wants to go to college. A couple of the other members said they want to try and take the band as far as can go after high school.

Worn Down will compete this weekend against L.A. Unified students who likely have more musical training and opportunities. That’s healthy, advisor Mungaray said. "They start noticing that these other people at other schools may be more talented than them, and if that’s the case they’ll come back the next day and try harder."

He said the prize isn’t a trophy from the competition. It’s the ability to start imagining a bigger life after high school.

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