Game Changer

In October 2001, Chris Yanov ’99 took a day off from substitute teaching at Ray Kroc Middle School, one of the toughest schools in San Diego. Instead, he spun a wheel in Culver City, California, guessed “R” and solved the puzzle:

“British Prime Minister Tony Blair.”

Yanov had loved game shows all his life—now he erupted with fanatic intensity. He’s on video in his suit and tie, overcome with emotion from making it to the bonus round. He won $23,200 dollars that day, more than he’d make in two years as a substitute teacher.

Most game show winners spend their loot on big ticket items like a new car, an exotic vacation or shiny appliances. Yanov had another idea—one that would change his life and the lives of many others.

But while Yanov won that day, the years leading to that spin had been marked with as much disappointment as success. Yes, he graduated from UC San Diego with honors in under three years, yet his extracurricular ambitions had fallen flat. Since freshman year, he’d spent an enormous amount of time volunteering off campus, running a youth program at the tiny Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispaña in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood, a rough area a world away from campus.

“I wanted to find a way to practice my Spanish outside of the classroom,” says Yanov. “But the way it ended up, it seemed like our lives were on the line nearly every single night. One night, I went to two funerals for two different kids, both teenagers buried in their soccer uniforms. I didn’t want to have to do that anymore.”

Reality Changers has produced college students at all UC and Cal State campuses, as well as Dartmouth, Duke, Princeton, Columbia and Harvard, just to name a few.

With a youth group made up of local gang members, Yanov attempted to show how the rivalries they were involved in were destructive and prove they could do more with their lives. He immersed himself in the work, moving out of the dorms and into an apartment near the Iglesia, taking classes on campus by day and spending nights working with the cholos. He dressed in their baggy jeans and oversized white T-shirts and shaved his hair down to a quarter inch of bristle. He drove them to the hospital when they got beaten up and became their lifeline whenever there was trouble. “Every time the phone rang, it was something,” he recalls. “Once I was in it, nothing else really mattered.”

The cholos liked Yanov, but they didn’t change. They still quit school as soon as they could, still fought with rival gangs, still got busted for burglaries and small-time dealing. Three years and thousands of hours with these guys, and Yanov couldn’t point to a single one who’d changed because of his efforts.

He started law school, thinking he could help somehow through the judicial system. But he spent so much time on the streets that he couldn’t keep up his GPA. After a year, he was out.

Four years, two failures.

He needed time to think and a paying gig. A new job as a substitute teacher kept Yanov close to the youth he was trying to impact, and his students had never seen such a sub. He wore suits and spoke Spanish like a native; he knew their slang and knew their lives.

Yanov watched 12- and 13-year-olds shuffle into his classroom—no backpacks, no notebooks, no homework. Yet the influence of gangs wasn’t so strong yet, either. His middle-schoolers acted hard, but they were wannabes, not yet fully entrenched in the life they saw for themselves.

One day, amid the empty coffee cups and dog-eared file folders in the teachers’ lounge, Yanov realized preaching against gangs didn’t cut it. If that was what these kids thought would support them, he needed to offer them something better. Something that had their back better than the gangs they’d eventually come to rely on. Something that offered a real chance to change the realities of their lives. On a takeout napkin, he wrote: “Reality Changers.” Agentes de Cambio. It sounded even better in Spanish.

In a cinder-block room at the Iglesia, Yanov started Reality Changers as an afterschool mentor program comprised of four boys and four girls, eighth graders he recruited from his classes. Stick with this program all the way through high school, he told them, and he guaranteed they’d get into college with the scholarships they needed. He had no idea where those scholarships would come from, but he had four years to figure that out.

His job was to keep them coming every week—to keep them tuned in. He used his lifetime of game show fandom to his advantage, adopting a host persona and engaging students with a winning cadence and style. “And no-o-w, all the way from Lemon Grove, Juan Gomez is going to tell us his answer. Let’s give Juan a bi-i-g hand!”

Yanov started Reality Changers with $300 dollars in his pocket. Then came that spin on the wheel. Yet even with that windfall, Yanov knew that fortune was fickle and there was no telling whether kids would stick with him.

Until a winter night in 2002, with six students studying with a few tutors recruited from his alma mater, the quiet of the room was rocked by a clattering against the iron bars over the windows.

Heads snapped up from books. Another rock crashed on the bars, so hard the glass rattled.

“Kiss-ass schoolboys!” came the calls from outside. “Hey Chris, why you only talking to the smart kids now?”

Yanov walked out the front door and saw a dozen eighth- and ninth-graders from the neighborhood under the street lamp. Every one of them he’d invited to join Reality Changers. “You’re our guy, Chris! You should let us in.”

“When you get your 3.0, we’ll be glad to have you.” He waved and walked back in the room.

Rocks rang the bars like chimes. Not much homework got done that night, and the tutors chalked up the meeting as a loss. But Yanov couldn’t stop grinning. They wanted in. They wanted to change their realities.

“Trying to get kids out of something isn’t enough,” says Yanov. “You’ve got to get them into something.” For Reality Changers, that something includes a group where they’re welcomed, where their peers share their goal of going to college and where they learn the social skills and behaviors that will help them get there. It also includes high expectations—a 3.0 GPA, a 90 percent attendance rate, 25 hours a year of community service and participation in a school activity or sport. It requires support from parents as well, a monthly meeting where they learn how to support their students’ goal of going to college. Parents also provide dinner on meeting nights, and students, staff and tutors eat dinner together, family style.

“College is a huge transition that the whole family has to make,” says Yanov.” The question for us becomes, ‘How do we build a first-generation college family?’”

Reality Changers’ emphasis on family is just one of the ways they change the game of getting kids into college. Another is the selection process: Yanov doesn’t recruit academic standouts. Instead, his model flips the game on its head, working to engage students in poor standing, ones too often written off as chronic truants or hopeless underachievers.

Each fall, Yanov and his staff go to middle schools in the city’s toughest neighborhoods and hold assemblies for the eighth graders whose GPAs range from 2.0 down to 0.0. “They come in kicking, screaming, cussing,” says Yanov. “We greet them with a smile and a handshake, and a name tag with their name printed out for something good. They might not have ever seen their name written down for something good in school before—always on the board for something bad. But we treat them as the people they will be, not who they are in that moment.”

They show videos of others, once in trouble like them, now college graduates. They present the room with an offer: The top 12 students who raise their grades the most over the next month will skip the waiting list and join the program six months before high school starts. “That’s when they look at all their friends, who are always getting in trouble, and think, ‘I may not be perfect, but I can at least be number 12 in this room.’”

Yanov reports that up to 60 percent of the worst-performing students in San Diego’s toughest parts of town raise their grades within that month. “No tutoring, no services. Just the idea and hope that something else out there could be better.”

Half of Reality Changers’ students enter the program this way. They come to Reality Changers cautious, full of guarded hope. Most stay because they see older kids who believe in the program. “The secret sauce to Reality Changers,” Yanov says, “is that if you want an eighth grader to buy something—whether it’s drugs, gangs or going to college—have an 11th grader sell it to him.”

And the final piece in the program brings Yanov back to campus where he started. When students raise their grades to a 3.5 GPA or higher, they receive a $4,300 scholarship (half paid by UC San Diego Extension, half paid by Reality Changers) to attend Extension’s Academic Connections program, where high-school students stay on campus for three weeks of summer, taking courses and growing accustomed to the college experience. The program, Yanov says, is the ultimate game-changer.

“All of our students believe they can be first-generation college students, but by going to Academic Connections, they become convinced that they can succeed because they’ve already done it, and they’re only in 10th grade. It transforms their chance of success, because they know they can make that transition. It makes the idea of going to college normal, even though nobody else in their families has ever gone before.”

And here’s the thing: it works. Since 2001, Reality Changers has helped more than 1,600 youth in San Diego County prepare for college and find the scholarships they need. Ninety-three percent of students stay with the program year over year. They’ve produced college students at all UC and Cal State campuses, at Dartmouth and Duke and Princeton, at Northwestern and Columbia and Harvard. The sum total of scholarships Reality Changers students have earned now exceeds $100 million.

An integral part of Reality Changers is the Academic Connections Program through UC San Diego Extension, where high school students stay on campus for three weeks of summer, acclimating them to the college experience.

And the benefit goes beyond just getting students in. For minority and disadvantaged students entering college, a key metric is persistence rate—the percentage who graduate or stay in college with graduation as their goal. Reality Changers’ students show a remarkable 88 percent persistence rate.

Results like these don’t go unnoticed. Cindy Marten, MA ’95, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, has been a longstanding partner with Reality Changers, and the school district has funded the organization’s College Apps Academy program, a streamlined prep course, at eight high schools for the next three years. “When I talk about solutions that work, I hold up Reality Changers as the gold standard,” says Marten. “If you want to know how to do it, you watch Chris Yanov.”

Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama, has called Reality Changers “absolutely a model, not for the city, not for the state, but for the country.”

When a program produces this much success, it gets a lot of pressure to scale. Yet the greatest pressure for Yanov is the waiting list: 361 students are currently waiting for the chance to change their lives, with an average wait time of two years. Those numbers haunt Yanov, who has held firm that Reality Changers will expand only as fast as it can maintain the high-impact, high-expectations model that makes it a success.

Scaling the program and keeping its best features is an uphill climb, but Reality Changers has faced nothing but uphill climbs ever since Yanov first put on the game show persona and the wannabes were throwing rocks at the windows. But if the climb wasn’t steep and the challenges weren’t tough, chances are Yanov wouldn’t get excited about them.

And for Yanov, excitement is what changes the game, whether it’s sending someone to college or solving a puzzle. “Game shows can be silly sometimes, but there’s this undeniable excitement that comes along when people believe that their futures could become wildly different. And that’s what we try to do at Reality Changers. We help low-income youth believe that, with a lot of hard work, their dreams of becoming first- generation college students really can come true.” No more spinning a wheel required.