When Yanitza Morales arrived as an 8-year-old at the North County campus of A Step Beyond, a nonprofit after-school program that prepares youths from low-income families for the future through dance education and robust academic and family services programs, she was having some trouble in school.
Below grade level in several subjects, subjected to bullying by classmates and suffering from low self-esteem, Morales never imagined she might be attending UCLA or Cal. But eight years later, that’s a decision Morales is considering today.
One of the original members of the inaugural cohort at A Step Beyond (ASB), Morales is currently a junior at the independent Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, where she carries a 3.8 grade-point average.
It was for students like Morales that the nonprofit ASB was created. The program was opened in 2014 by retired Irvine-based Fieldstone Homes President and CEO Frank Foster and a small group of caring locals.
ASB provides services after school to youth from third to 12th grade at its campus at the California Center for the Arts in downtown Escondido. The organization’s program is unique because of its 10-year commitment to its students and their families, at no cost, said James Wright, ASB’s CEO since 2020.
“The founders believed motivating young people to excel in education and after-school activities was the key to ending the cycle of poverty and creating financial stability for life,” Wright said.
Foster, a San Diego State University graduate and previously a vice president with Union Bank, and his wife, Jan, had previously served together for 13 years on the board of a successful dance program in Orange County and sought to replicate its proven formula in San Diego.
Today, A Step Beyond provides about 250 underserved youth with opportunities to expand their expectations and ambitions through classes in contemporary dance, music and other expressive arts, academic tutoring and enrichment.
Research indicates dance, music and arts education can improve cognitive learning abilities and understanding of science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.
ASB also provides different modes of family services that offer wraparound services, crisis intervention as needed, and community. The group promotes social and emotional strength, part of its holistic model that nurtures kids’ healthy and meaningful friendships in a safe, supportive environment, and allows for positive relationships with adults.
“We are working to address current gaps that exist in North County in education, artistic and mental health support for low-income students and families,” Wright said. “We aim to play a role in breaking the cycle of poverty that exists in our community and improve our local economy by helping students finish high school and enroll in college or career programs that advance their aspirations.”
Vista resident Wright, a graduate of George Washington University, has a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership and management from USD. His previous job titles include CEO at the Classroom of the Future Foundation, director of development and marketing at Feeding San Diego, and manager of development and membership services at the Federation of American Scientists.
Wright said that like many of the students the staff works with, Morales has excelled at A Step Beyond, and beyond. She earned a scholarship to the private college preparatory school Pacific Ridge in 2019, thanks in part to the program’s support.
“After attending our tutoring and dance programs for two hours twice a week, she saw her GPA increase to a 3.0 within her first year and a 4.0 in her fourth year,” Wright said. “She became a frequent visitor in our MakerSpace upon entering middle school and was selected to be the Sugar Plum Fairy in A Step Beyond’s first performance of ‘The Nutcracker.’”
A Step Beyond will have its first graduating cohort next year, and Wright said that ASB is on track to have 100% of its first graduating class in the spring of 2023 complete high school and go on to either college or a career pathway program “aligned to their dreams.”
ASB Board Chair Leslie Culbertson, a retired Intel exec, said that “it’s exciting to see how kids like Yanitza grow in their confidence, and self-esteem, become proud of who they are and what they accomplish.”
“Our goal is to bend the curve for low-income families and try to raise that up by building the students’ confidence during their time here,” Culbertson said.
A Step Beyond
FOUNDED: 2013, opened 2014
CEO: Jamie Wright
OPERATING BUDGET: $1.6 million
NOTABLE: A Step Beyond emphasizes both a mastery of the art form of dance and the acquisition of essential skills youths need to thrive and become college and/or career ready.