ANAHEIM, Calif. — In a tan building about a 9-iron’s length away from where a teenaged Tiger Woods honed his golf game, a terrible crime has been committed. A room has been ransacked. Blood is everywhere.
And it is up to a team of fifth-graders to figure out what happened.
Prosecutors, fear not. It’s just a typical day at the Tiger Woods Learning Center, where crime scene investigations, rocket launches and miniature auto races are par for the course.
Over the last two years, thousands of students have streamed through the sun-lit halls of this 35,000-square foot facility, which serves as the flagship institution for the Tiger Woods Foundation, the charity founded by the world’s top golfer. And though it seems like everyone’s having a great time, there is serious learning going on just about every day.
“The learning center is all about making education fun and interesting,” said Kathy Bihr, the center’s executive director, who oversees a staff of 30. “It’s a great program for teaching critical thinking and analysis skills, and it touches on so many different things for the kids. The engagement factor is 100 percent. When you walk into the room, it’s unbelievable.”
The center’s first floor resembles a college student union. There are comfortable couches, televisions and coffee tables with free snacks. It is a popular place for students to mingle after arriving from their normal school day but only for a while before it’s time for class or studying.
For seventh- and eighth-graders, programs focus on helping students learn about potential careers. The center’s Career Exploration Program includes more than 50 different subjects ranging from marine biology to genetics and robotics. Similar programs are offered for high-schoolers but with more challenging curricula designed to prepare students for specific college majors and careers. There is a music and film studio, and there are computer labs loaded with professional software.
The learning center also offers a program for fifth-graders in which classroom teachers from the local public schools are brought in to develop lesson plans and gain other teaching skills. The program is entirely centered around forensic science, allowing most of the students to get their first experience with a microscope and other scientific equipment.
For many students, the learning center is an oasis of calm amid a storm of challenges. In the Anaheim Unified Public School District, for instance, more than 80 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches, many live in households in which English is a second language and some live in neighborhoods where guns are more plentiful than desks.
“Sometimes, a lot of these kids here have multiple responsibilities at home, whether it be caring for a younger sibling or working multiple jobs to help support the family,” Bihr said. “There are a lot of different pressures out there, and this has quickly become a very safe place for them to come and be creative and still be kids and not be pressured into adult roles too soon.”
It is because of these challenges that Woods and his foundation chose the Anaheim area for their first learning center. More than $25 million was invested in the center’s construction, and it has an operating budget of $2.5 million.
“We’ve had kids write us letters [saying], ‘Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity. I am now going off to college. First person in my family to go off to college,’” said Woods, whose AT&T National event starts Thursday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. “That’s an impact that we all should have, we all should be striving for.”
What’s more, area school officials said the learning center has the advantage of being unbound by strict federal and state guidelines on curriculum and performance.
“At the Tiger Woods Learning Center, they don’t have those restrictions, so they can just explore,” Anaheim Unified superintendent Sandra Barry said. “And the kids respond. It’s like a whole new world.”
Monica Vega, a ninth-grader attending Savanna High School in Anaheim, said the learning center has helped focus her interest in forensic science. She hopes to attend a four-year university - Pepperdine is at the top of her list if she keeps her grades up - and possibly go into a career as a crime scene investigator.
“It’s changed my perspective and the way I look at things,” she said. “Before I came to the learning center, I knew what I wanted to do, but now that I’m here, they’re helping me reach that goal. I wasn’t sure how to get there, and they’re showing me how.”
Vega is part of a special leadership team at the center that allows her to make presentations to supporters and corporate partners. She recently spoke with Chevron executives about her involvement in Tiger’s Action Plan, a community service program tied to the foundation.
Woods, who lives in Florida, generally visits the center when he is on the West Coast. He is a visible presence throughout the center; a statue of Woods and his father, Earl, greets visitors as they enter the center.
Of course, any facility conceived by Woods would not be complete without a golf component, and the learning center sits on a 14-acre plot that contains a full driving range and putting course. The Dad Miller Golf Course, where Woods played his high school golf, is right next door. Students are permitted to use the driving range during their free time and can get instruction that allows them to earn playing privileges at Dad Miller and several other public courses in Southern California.
The center does not accept just anyone. Students must go through an application process and show a willingness to learn. But center officials also work with school counselors to identify troubled students who might benefit from a change in scenery or a more engaging curriculum.
“We have a lot of kids who are good students, and we have a whole host that really are pretty lost,” Bihr said. “And then we have a lot that counselors recommend that with a little bit of encouragement and motivation could become good students. So we have a lot that are right on that middle line, that sort of crossroads of becoming a really great student or maybe choosing a really bad place to be in life. We kind of work our magic most on that group.”
Woods and his foundation pledged to build a learning center in the District when he announced his tournament’s arrival in March 2007. The Tiger Woods Foundation has examined several potential sites, including an area near Fort Dupont in Southeast. An announcement on a location could come by the end of this year.
Long term, Woods said he would like to open learning centers in cities all around the world.
Bihr said she travels to Washington an average of once a month and has met with several city leaders, including D.C. Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. She said it’s too early to tell which programs would transfer well to Washington but that center officials are keeping an open mind.
“What we’re trying to figure out is what would be the best fit for that particular community,” she said. “I think some of the things that are happening here could certainly work there. What the learning center here brings is possibilities and hope. And I can’t think of a better thing that would be great for the kids in Washington, D.C., than hope and really just giving them an opportunity to see what life can be like outside that Beltway and how they can participate in it.”