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What Happens After School Important, Too

Tuesday, December 14, 2004 at 12:55 PM

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Most of the focus in education is on helping children achieve more in school, but what happens after school is also important. Studies show after school programs can improve academic achievement and reduce risky behavior. But according to a recent nationwide survey only 11% of America's schoolkids are involved in such programs, while many more spend their afternoons playing computer games, watching TV, or getting into trouble. As ideastream's Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz reports, kids are eager to participate - when given the opportunity.

On a cold and windy Friday afternoon in December, fifth-grader Joseph Hickman is wearing shorts. They’re maroon and match his team jersey. Joseph is on the boys soccer team at Scranton Elementary school in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. Before the team formed in late September, Joseph says, he’d never played soccer.

Joseph Hickman: I have always played football; I really like soccer because you can do more with your feet.

Joseph and 29 other Scranton students spend three afternoons a week using their feet to dribble, pass, block, and score. On the other two school days, they use their minds and creativity to craft poems. Joseph says he’s been writing a lot about his new black lab puppy named Jada. And recently, he penned an ode to the color white.

Joseph Hickman: White feels like gentle wind; white smells like cologne; white feels like a pillow; white owns me.

Though poetry and soccer may seem unrelated, both are central to Cleveland SCORES, an afterschool program launched last spring. Through a combination of foundation and corporate support, SCORES provides 30 kids at each of eight Cleveland schools with a free alternative to sitting at home doing homework or watching TV.

Linda Opaluch teaches English as a Second Language and coaches the Scranton boys in writing. When she first heard about SCORES at a faculty meeting last year, she says, she immediately saw its potential.

Linda Opaluch: A lot of these kids have no opportunities for something like this. There’s no team or rec facility where they can join a team and practice afterschool like this.

Indeed, an informal poll of SCORES participants reveals that before they joined the program, most had nothing in particular to do after school. That was true of 8-year-old Victoria Latorre. Her mother Milagros says SCORES has been great for Victoria, helping her take off weight, lose some of her shyness, and become very good at expressing her thoughts and feelings.

Milagros Latorre: She did this poetry about pickles, and I didn’t know how bad she didn’t like pickles until I read that. The teacher put it up on the board. It was so funny.

Milagros Latorre is amazed at her daughter’s poetic inventiveness, she says, as well as her improved physical fitness. And she never misses an opportunity to come to Victoria’s games.

Other families, like third-grader Alberta Bell’s, have also become involved.

Alberta Bell: My dad, he comes out and he encourage me to do better, and he tries to help my teammates. And my brother comes to some of my games and so does my mom. But it’s about to be over and I don’t want it to be over. I wanna play forever and ever. I wanna be a pro when I grow up.

Maybe Alberta will be one of the very few athletes who reach such a level. Right now, she’s part of a different minority: those children who participate in afterschool programs. A recent survey by the national advocacy group Afterschool Alliance found 11% of America’s kids are in afterschool programs. In Ohio, it’s 7%.

Judy Sammelson, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, says this means millions of kids are not only more likely to get into trouble during those unsupervised hours, but they miss an opportunity to learn and grow, and to give back to their communities.

Judy Sammelson: If we expect them to go on and be productive citizens, and successful contributors to society, we just have to make this a priority in this country.

Since 2000, Congress has provided one billion dollars per year for afterschool programs through the No Child Left Behind Act. That funding was supposed to increase by $250 million per year, according to Sammelson. Instead, she says, funding has stayed flat. According to Alliance calculations, if Congress had approved the increases, Ohio would be able to provide 88,000 kids with afterschool programs this year, instead of half that number.

Those kids who do have access to afterschool programs find their choices differ widely. According to Sammelson, the best afterschool programs generally offer a variety of activities.

Judy Sammelson: There’s plenty of physical activity, there’s a nutritious snack for them, but there’s real learning time, opportunity to get homework done, and learn how to get along with other people.

Sammelson says much progress has been made in providing kids with afterschool options that enrich their lives. But the sheer number of children without any such opportunities suggest there’s a long way to go. Across the country, she says, 14 million kids have no afterschool care. 43,000 of them are in Kindergarten.

Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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