After school, in a Providence, Rhode Island, community recreation center, eighth grader Estefany wraps her hands in gauze, puts on a pair of boxing gloves, and enters the ring while nine other girls wait their turn to throw some punches. Estefany begins sparring one-on-one with her male instructor, while one of her friends is in another corner with the other boxing teacher. Estefany jabs with her left hand, and then delivers two right-hand punches to her teacher's gloves while he barks out commands and nimbly moves around the ring. After several minutes, her teacher commends her and shouts out, "Who's next?" as the next eager middle school student climbs in the ring for her afternoon amateur pugilism education.
"This is the first year I've taken boxing," Estefany says as she unwraps her hands afterward. "I want to build my strength and be more healthy. School stresses me out, so I take out my stress here, practicing my jabs and my one-twos. It takes the anger out. I also don't want to miss school during the day because of what I get to do afterward."
"Don't fight fun," says Patrick Duhon, deputy director of the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), the intermediary organization linking the students of seven middle schools with high-quality enrichment programs that get rolling when the school bell rings. "If kids have fun, they stay engaged." That statement sums up PASA's operative philosophy underlying all the sports, arts, music, and science-oriented projects in its AfterZone program, or AZ, as the students fondly call it. A voluntary-enrollment program, AZ attracts one-quarter to one-third of Providence's 5,400 middle school students, an age group most at risk for dropping out before reaching high school. PASA offers a creative alternative to those vulnerable after-school hours while building strong relationships with peers and adults -- another key strategy for keeping kids in school.
What would Estefany be doing if she weren't in the AfterZone? "I guess I'd just go home, maybe do some homework, maybe go outside and skateboard or play soccer." For other students, the answers range from watching television to hanging out on street corners. The AfterZone activities begin at 2:35 p.m. and conclude at 5 p.m., a time when most parents finish their workdays.
While Estefany watches other girls get into the ring during the two-hour Monday and Wednesday Girls Train2Box session at the Nickerson Community Center, a short van ride away, another group of middle school students is at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, participating in the Pets & Vets program. They are listening to veterinarians speak about keeping animals healthy, and may even get to watch a surgical operation on an ailing pet later in the session. Another group of students is working in the Save the Bay program in Narraganset Bay with marine biologists.
At the same time, seventh grader Airy is at the City Arts center learning printmaking, showing off her latest creation and saying that someday she'd like to be an artist. Another student, Bryant, is back at home base, sitting in the Gilbert Stuart Middle School cafeteria waiting for his after-school group to go to the gym for his two-day-a-week volleyball session. "I like sports," he says, but then notes that last year he took a Latin dance class. On Mondays and Wednesdays, he takes volleyball; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he's learning tennis. "The AZ teachers don't push you. They don't pressure you," Bryant explains. "They're fun to be with. If you respect us, we will respect you back."
Patchwork Quilt of Programs
"It feels like a continuing ed course catalog," says PASA executive director Hillary Salmons as she thumbs through this semester's AfterZone class offerings, which are found in booklets for each of the three after-school campuses. Each campus bridges two or three middle schools to nearby provider locations where students can choose from a range of arts, skills, and sports activities. "It's a Monday-through-Thursday, four-day design where we mobilize the assets of the community, including what's available at the schools themselves and other recreational centers," she says.
Salmons opens the fall-semester program guide of offerings for students at Samuel Bridgham Middle School, which includes a hip-hop dance class, a silver-jewelry workshop, a television-production class, a cooking class, a community-improvement architecture club, and a martial arts class to provide a physical workout as well as develop social confidence and boost academic performance.
In the past, Salmons says, various organizations with after-school activities often competed with one another. "With PASA, we've set up a system where we can share, not compete. We've been able to knit together a variety of stimulating, good-quality programs and field trips. We made the patchwork quilt. We built a seamless school day. When the bell rings, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the end of the school day. Middle school students want to explore; they want to be challenged to learn. So we've been able to provide them with structured adventures."
PASA was launched in July 2004 by Providence mayor David N. Cicilline, who sought to develop a top-of-the-line enrichment program for the city's youth. Serving as a think-tank intermediary to devise such a strategy, PASA developed a plan called Learning in Communities/Providence, led by Rhode Island Kids Count (RIKC) and funded by the Wallace Foundation, which had taken an interest in the needs of the city's after-school programs in April 2003 after several studies reported that high-quality after-school programs are an affordable and effective way to improve school attendance and success.
According to a RIKC annual report, 40 percent of Providence's 45,000 multiethnic children live in poverty, and only two-thirds graduate from high school. Before PASA was established, nearly half of the city's middle school students did not participate in any structured activities after the school day ended. Wallace has provided the bulk of PASA's funding ($5 million over five years), while the Bank of America granted the organization $1 million.
"Studies found that elementary schools were pretty well taken care of with after-school child care, and high schools had such high-caliber programs as youth-leadership development and arts and theater," says Salmons, who points out that middle school students, meanwhile, were vastly underserved. "Children at that age are going through huge developmental transition challenges. It's similar to when a two-year-old is learning to walk. And society doesn't want to deal with that age group. But we know kids are at risk if they aren't busy, passionate, and excited about learning. It can be dangerous for them to be on the streets or at home alone."
Beginning with a pilot program in fall 2005, and fully operational in January 2007, PASA has built a system of public entities and private groups working together to serve middle school children. The key to its success is understanding students' needs.
"For most children, 'after school' means remediation or detention or child care," says Salmons. "Plus, we had to understand what their interests are and provide quality instruction." PASA ensures that the providers, who apply for grants to teach structured activities in the program, are offering high-quality, engaging experiences. "With open enrollment, retention is so important," says Salmons. "We need to make sure kids want to come consistently. Our program has to be different, and the children have to feel that they own it." She cites an example: coming up with the name of the after-school program. Initially, the neighborhood-oriented groupings were going to be called hubs, until PASA learned that the word didn't resonate with kids -- but AfterZone did.
Parental involvement is also essential: Parents are required to provide family information and travel instructions and to sign off on the registration forms for each of the three AZ semesters offered each year.
Treating Students Like Adults
At 2:30 p.m. at Gilbert Stuart Middle School, the AZ students gather in the school cafeteria, splitting up into their groups. They're offered healthy snacks, courtesy of the Sodexho School Services group, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some students wait for a van or a bus to transport them off site to their activities, while others anticipate the imminent arrival of instructors who will be working with them at the school.
Alex Molina, coordinator of the West End/South Side AZ, oversees the activities and providers and makes sure the AZ brand is upheld. "We want to treat the students like adults in structured time," he says, noting that choice is a major factor. "They choose what they want. They meet with the providers before they make their decisions about what activity to enroll in. They ask them, 'Why should I choose you?' They don't want to be babysat. They want to learn a life skill."
Given the large numbers of students here, the atmosphere is remarkably self-disciplined. While waiting for their instructors to arrive and escort them to their activity (one adult is assigned to 13 students), some of the children are boisterously talking and joking with one another, while others are playfully flirting. Three boys decide to throw paper airplanes. Molina swoops in, says hello to the trio, and, rather than scold, sits them down and shows them how to improve on their models.
Such personal interaction stands in stark contrast to the way the cafeteria is used during the school day. "The students have a quiet lunch or stand-up lunch if they get in trouble," Molina says, pointing to boxes painted on the floor that designate where the students line up to get served. "There's a megaphone and a whistle used. The kids have to sit at the same table in the same rows. But the way we give these kids the opportunity to just spend time with each other after school transforms the cafeteria into a place for more freedom."
As for the programs and activities, Molina is proud of the way providers have been using his and other PASA members' suggestions for best-practices feedback. "The youth are the customers," he says. "If they don't come, the AZ wouldn't be here. So we have to give good customer service."
Early in its developmental stages, PASA found that some students needed additional academic support after school, beyond sports or arts activities. Enter Club AfterZone, a special one-hour period preceding or following one-hour enrichment programs held at the school. Again, choice is key. In the hour reserved for Club AZ, students have the opportunity to choose an academic and enrichment activity to complement their school curriculum.
"Some parents expressed a concern about their children falling behind in homework and their studies," says Elizabeth Devaney, PASA's director of quality initiatives. "So, we had to figure out how to bring academics into the picture." Sports or theater was offered in the first hour, but PASA packed another hour with enrichment opportunities, including adult help with homework, one-on-one tutoring, and "imagination" sessions in creative writing.
"The kids think that Club AZ is cool," says Molina. "It's not study hall. They trust the brand we've created."
Even though PASA has developed an exemplary program to link students with the surrounding community -- a program other cities are attempting to emulate -- there's always room for improvement, says Elizabeth Devaney. In addition to monitoring attendance of all the students in the AfterZone (upon enrollment in a program, students are required to attend every session and may be removed after more than two unexcused absences), she also oversees the personal development of each provider's program to ensure that AZ's cred with middle school students is upheld.
In making self-assessments, PASA's staff members monitor courses and activities and offer tools for improvement. Devaney cites an example: A young capoeira teacher needed help keeping the students engaged; a simple suggestion to have a youth member instead of the instructor lead a warm-up session did the trick. Another piece of advice was for Estefany's boxing class. "Because only two girls can be in the ring at any given time, the other girls need to be doing something more concrete than texting their friends," she says. "So we suggested that the other girls get clipboards and instructors helped them develop academic-oriented activities related to a fitness routine."
Devaney constantly assesses provider offerings. "A wildly successful" activity, she says, was Pets & Vets, which hundreds of students signed up for. (Not all got the chance to take the limited-enrollment course.) "It was about animals and taking field trips to the zoo," she says. "And the students got to see live animals on the first day."
On the other hand, some courses flopped. PASA thought the program Bites & Bytes, linking cooking and computer technology, would be a big hit. "But the first day, there was no cooking, so half the class dropped it," says Devaney. "We're always trying to improve quality, but sometimes we're flummoxed by the way middle school kids think."
Despite such setbacks, PASA's experiment in bringing the public and private sectors together to give middle school students a safe, creative outlet for their after-school energy has received high grades. "Our surveys show that kids love AfterZone and would recommend it to friends; they feel welcomed and treated with respect," Devaney says. "It gives them stability, and they've taken ownership of it" -- just the kind of commitment Providence was looking for to keep their kids in school, build their confidence, and prepare them for success as adults.