After school programs focus on tutoring in effort to help poor kids

May 11, 2009

Focus on homework; with an emphasis on tutoring, area after-school programs grow
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Eleven-year-old Ericka Police tried to work her way through a list of vocabulary words. Each time she struggled, a patient voice told her to look up the word she didn’t know.

Looking over her shoulder was Ernestine Simms-Kigh, youth services manager at the Salvation Army’s new after-school program in downtown Arlington.

“Always look up a word if you don’t know what it is,” Simms-Kigh told the sixth-grader. “That’s really the only way you can learn a new word — you just have to look it up.”

The new program is one of several in Tarrant County seeking more participants, mirroring a national surge in after-school programs that place a strong emphasis on homework.

Officials hope the Salvation Army program, which started last week with about eight children, grows to include 50 children.

The Boys & Girls Clubs’ seven locations in Fort Worth serve 8,900 children, and officials want to increase the number to 10,000 by the end of 2009.

Girls Inc. in Arlington serves about 30 girls a day. The nonprofit wants to more than double that number.

Priscilla Little, associate director of the Harvard Family Research Project, said the federal government is spending more on after-school programs than ever before. She said 10 agencies fund the programs, with the largest one, the Education Department, dishing out about a billion dollars a year.

“Increasingly, people are understanding that we have a huge education problem in the country, and schools are not going to solve it alone, nor should they,” Little said.

She said much of the federal funding, and much of today’s approach to after-school programs in general, is related to the No Child Left Behind Act.

Because No Child Left Behind emphasizes academic performance, many after-school programs have a strong focus on tutoring.

The symptoms

Nearly a third of parents who do not have their children enrolled in an after-school program would enroll them if a program were available, according to the Afterschool Alliance in Washington, D.C.

Seventeen percent of the nation’s children, about 13 million, live below the federal poverty line, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty in New York.

Kinsey Dinan, a senior policy associate at the center, said the government’s poverty threshold — $21,200 a year for a family of four — is very low. Nonprofits like hers consider poor people to be those with incomes 200 percent above the poverty line. By that measure, 29 million children are poor, she said.

She said those kids are at greater risk of being poor in adulthood, of having behavioral problems and of not graduating from high school.

Ginia Jones, a staff member at the Boys & Girls Clubs for the last 17 years, said this generation of children seems more hyperactive, more hooked on video games and more likely to be raised by young parents or by grandparents.

“This is the most trying group of young people,” she said. “They would really be in bad shape if it wasn’t for the Boys & Girls Club.”

Research shows that after-school programs improve children’s behavior, academic performance, health and aspirations for college, Little said.

Power hour

The three growing programs the Star-Telegram looked at all have games, activities, team- and leadership-building exercises, arts and crafts — and a strong emphasis on homework.

“If you don’t have homework, too bad. We’re going to give you some homework,” said Kevin Foster, the vice president of operations for the Boys & Girls Clubs. “That’s what we stress: education, education, education.”

As he spoke, kids arrived at the branch in southeast Fort Worth. The basketball court and game room were open to them, but they each had to take a turn at “power hour” in a room that looks like a school classroom with small tables and chairs, rows of books and computers.

Children who had no homework were given work sheets of number and word problems. Staff members sat with the kids, nudging them along, forbidding them to give up.

“Ms. Asia has all day. We can sit here all day until we figure this out,” Educational Coordinator Asia Thomas told a girl struggling with a math problem.

Erika Johnson, a third-grade teacher at I.M. Terrell Elementary School in Fort Worth, said up to 80 percent of her students attend the Boys & Girls Clubs. She said the academic support there is a success largely because club staffers keep in close contact with her and know what the kids are studying.

“I will give them my weekly homework assignment sheet,” Johnson said. “I even send over our curriculum, our books.”

Francisco Davila, 9, a fourth-grader at S.S. Dillow Elementary School in Fort Worth, said his Spanish-speaking mother sends him to the Boys & Girls Clubs.

“I’m coming here because my mom tells me to because she doesn’t know how to help me with the homework,” he said.

‘Becoming a leader’

Thelma Smith said her daughter Collette, 17, has benefited greatly from going to Girls Inc. every day after school for three years.

“I get the sense that she is becoming a leader. She talks to the girls and tells them what they need to do in order to accomplish a certain task,” Smith said.

Renair White, a senior at Dunbar High School in Fort Worth who’s been going to the Boys & Girls Clubs since he was 8, said the club was able to reach him in part because the staff were from his neighborhood and could relate to him.

“I didn’t want to listen because I didn’t have a father figure,” White said. “If I didn’t have the club in my life, I probably would be out smoking, doing drugs or something like that.”