Tiger Woods wants to level the playing field in education one kid at a time

ANAHEIM, California — In a back stairway of a grand glass and sandstone building five miles north of Disneyland, Alejandro Barajas and cohorts are setting up to shoot a scene for a movie.

With a mat of dyed green hair atop his skull and scenes dancing in his imagination, Barajas is discussing camera angles, lighting and dialogue. The script is an ode to kindness, how two kids overcome problems they are having at school. The screenplay is ever changing but the heart of the story remains intact. Barajas later edits scenes on a high-tech computer.

Barajas, 12, is right at home in a 35,000-square-foot studio otherwise known as the TGR Learning Lab on 1 Tiger Woods Way, a brick-and-mortar behemoth of educational opportunity.

"This doesn't feel like school. You're not forced into it. I come here to have fun and I learn at the same time," Barajas said between shoots. "It's better than staying at home with a lot of down time. Tiger Woods built this place for us and it's cool. Tiger Woods helps the community."

Woods, the 79-time PGA Tour winner with 14 majors on his resume, just smiled when told of Barajas. It's one of thousands of stories Woods hoped to hear when he created his foundation, now known as TGR, which unites his entrepreneurial and philanthropic endeavors.

Opened in 2006, the Learning Lab is the backbone of Woods' goal to provide kids a safe place to learn, explore and grow. The Lab offers students from low-income households and underfunded schools a variety of classes in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The Lab's backyard is a driving range and a par-3 course that is home to Golfology, a class where kids learn about turf management and how to hit a 9-iron. The Lab also  offers college-prep workshops.

Besides after-school programs that last two to three hours Monday through Friday for students in grades 7-12, thousands of fifth- and sixth-graders visit the Lab on weekly field trips. During the summer, students between fifth and 12th grade can attend the Lab.

"Hitting a golf shot isn't going to make anything better," said Woods, the headliner in this week's Quicken Loans National at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm in Bethesda, Maryland. "What we're going to do, beyond our lifetimes, is lead education into the future. And that to me is far more important than anything I have ever won.

"There are so many kids who have talent but they don't have the opportunity. We're giving them the opportunity."

» Photos: Tiger Woods through the years

A hunger for learning

Woods was in St. Louis to play the American Express Championship when terrorists turned airplanes into missiles and destroyed the Twin Towers and damaged the Pentagon on 9/11. With planes grounded and the tournament cancelled, Woods drove more than 1,000 miles to his Florida home.

"I thought to myself that if I was in one of the Towers, the way the foundation was set up, the foundation would cease and desist," Woods said. "Education came first when I was a kid. I couldn't play golf or play with my friends until I did my homework. And I had to do it correctly and get good grades.

"So why was the foundation golf first?"

Tiger changed its stripes, shifting the focus from running golf clinics to introduce the game to kids to emphasizing education. He envisioned his foundation as a hub for STEM education for kids from underprivileged communities.

The foundation transformed quickly. In addition to the Learning Lab, there are satellite hubs in Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia and Stuart, Florida. There's also a satellite hub near the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia. In total, these campuses have served more than 165,000 kids over the last decade, a majority being minorities. Professional development workshops have been held for around 5,000 STEM educators from underfunded schools.

But Woods and the foundation are intent to broaden the scope of its impact to serve millions of children annually, and TGR has partnered with Discovery Education to create a digital campus for educators around the world to tap into the STEM curriculum.

More than 50 STEM classes are offered in sports science, nutrition and fitness, video game design, human anatomy and oceanography. Others involve DNA analysis and animal dissection. Some students are building rockets, others a scaled-down rollercoaster. One class's experiment had students get hamburgers from In-N-Out to measure the sugar and fat content in servings to see the difference from one burger to another.

"They have 10-year-olds doing coding now, it's crazy," Woods said. "I just keep telling the foundation to keep pushing it, keep growing it. It's a different world now. It's geared to high-tech and these kids aren't the most fortunate kids. So for them to have access to all the different platforms that pretty much all the other kids in private schools have is important and vital.

"We're trying to make it a level playing field."

Woods is by far the foundation's biggest donor of the $150 million raised to date. Corporate sponsors, charitable contributions, and funds rasied at his two-day Tiger Jam in Las Vegas and PGA Tour tournaments, including this week's Quicken Loans National, help fill out the coffers.

Woods also is a "force" for the foundation, a "hands-on boss," said TGR president and CEO Rick Singer.

"People should look at my texts and calls," Singer said. "He's very smart, very strategic, always asking where do we find the money, where do we spend money? I know people question that he isn't involved, but that's just not right.

"One of the things Tiger asked us to do is take a program that was successful in reaching 100,000 kids and scale it to reach millions of kids. We know these kids are hungry to learn. We have to reach all of them."

» Q & A: Tiger Woods before the Masters

Building confidence

The numbers are staggering. Eighty-two percent of students who have gone through the Learning Lab program improved their grades, 87 percent began planning careers and 91 percent became more optimistic about their futures, according to the foundation.

The Earl Woods Scholar program, named for Tiger's late father, includes counseling, mentoring, specialized internships and financial assistance for the nearly 200 students who earned passage to college. Ninety-eight percent were first-generation college attendees, with 98.9 percent graduating. The first class of Earl Woods scholars were freshman in college in 2007.

"Kids really want to understand how to connect school to the real world. We don't paint that picture clearly until you get to college," said Kathy Bihr, vice president of programs and education. "Our hope is to expose them early to the real world so they can see a clearer picture of where they want to go.

"The kids have a thirst for knowledge. It's fun to watch kids go through the process and maybe be shy and withdrawn, but when the weeks and months go by you see them build confidence."

Daniel Lee latched on to his opportunity. The quiet 14-year-old who picks his words carefully does his best work sitting in front of a computer. Lee, who has programmed a Lego robot and took a forensic class when he was in fifth grade, is putting the finishing touches of his own video game called the Impossible Quiz.

"I want to be a video game designer in the future," said Lee, who also created a video game involving tank wars. "Instead of just playing video games, why not make the video game?"

Why not? Why can't I make a difference? That's what Alma Gutierrez, 25, asked herself after she walked through the Lab's doors. The graduate from Cal State Fullerton went to the same high school that Woods attended — Western High School in Anaheim — where she played golf. The team's uniforms, balls, bags and clubs were paid for by Woods.

She began working at the Learning Lab in the summer of 2009 as a teacher's assistant. In 2016, she was hired as a full-time program coordinator for the Earl Woods Scholar Program.

"I got confidence when I came here. I used to be very shy in high school. I came here and people knew my name. That made me feel like somebody," she said.

Andres Cuamani, 20, first walked into the Lab as a fifth-grader and went to after-school programs for six years. He first volunteered at the Lab and then was hired as a range attendant. He's a junior at Cal State Fullerton and wants to be a Spanish teacher.

"I honestly don't know where I'd be without this place," he said. "There was a feeling of comfort and attachment right away when I came here. When I was in the seventh grade, my mom told me she didn't want me in the house doing nothing. She said, 'Go and do something else.' I'm glad she told me that.

"Now I have a feeling that I will change things for others."

Luis Jimenez, a 17-year-old senior from Santa Ana High School, thinks along the same lines. He's been singing in the church choir since he was 9 and has been a part of mariachi ensembles almost as long.

Coming from a low-income home, his parents told him to dream big, work hard and believe. And that's what he did, or as he said, "I spread my wings."

He'll take those wings to Stanford in the fall as an Earl Woods scholar.

"I want to be a candle of hope for the students I want to teach," Jimenez said.

Part of the process to become an Earl Woods scholar was an interview with a former Stanford student — Tiger Woods. Jimenez told Woods about his grandfather, who fell on hard times after he enrolled in the University of Guadalajara. He left his family, dropped out of school and became homeless. Jimenez's parents fear the same could happen to their son.

"One of the things Tiger said was, 'You are you, you're not him,'" said Jimenez, who wants to major in and then teach chemistry. "That is still in my mind. It was one of the most memorable conversations I've ever had.

"Tiger made a difference with me. He makes a difference for a lot of kids."

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