More fun than Ninja Turtles, nurse’s office

March 21, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

Local nonprofit promotes structured play at recess in BPS

JP is home to the Boston office of a national nonprofit aimed at preempting bullies’ inclinations and discouraging kids from ending up in the nurses office after pretending to be ninjas at recess in the Boston Public Schools (BPS).

Sports4Kids’ modus operandi is “organizing structured play at recess,” leading youth in games like kickball and foursquare, said the organization’s Boston Director, Eunice Dunham.

It also runs after-school programs, including a girls’ basketball league and a co-ed volleyball league. Scores are not kept in any Sports4Kids activities, Dunham said.

The Boston office of Sports4Kids at 202 Green St. opened in 2006. That year it worked in seven BPS elementary schools. This year the group is working in 13 schools, including the Hennigan, Agassiz and Young Achievers schools in JP.

The program is “absolutely fabulous” said Eleanor Perry, headmaster at the Hennigan School. The Hennigan is in its second year of partnership with Sports4Kids.

At her school, “All grades, K through 5, are participating in learning how to play games. It’s a chance to play games that we are not teaching anymore,” Perry said.

Values like cooperation, teamwork and being a good sport are instilled through the games, she said. “It’s been a big improvement on the recess side. My nurse can attest to that,” Perry said. “They play tag and ball without trying to kick and punch or use wrestling types of moves…They are no longer playing Ninja Turtle types of kicking games.”

The program has a full-time site coordinator for each school, but teachers participate in the activities as well, Perry said. At the beginning of the school year her entire staff participated in an outdoor games training.

The opportunity for teachers and students to play games together and for the teachers to experience the “sights and sounds that go along with them,” has been another great aspect of the program, Perry said.

Sports4Kids also runs a youth leadership program for 4th- and 5th- graders, training students to lead games. That aspect of the program highlights an issue in education of minority students that is often overlooked, Perry said. “We talk about an achievement gap in terms of education, but not in terms of leadership.”

Sport4Kids was founded in Oakland, Calif. in 1995. The program’s founder, Jill Violet, was working with a similar organization, bringing arts programming to the Oakland public school system, Dunham said.

Violet was working at a school one day when a fight broke out between two students. “The principal looked at Jill and said, ‘hey, can you do something about this?’” Dunham said. “So it all stemmed from one school.”

According to the organization’s web site, it is currently running programs in Baltimore; Washington D.C.; the San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley in California.

Here in Boston, the program fulfills portions of the city-mandated Wellness Policy requirements for schools, but not physical education (PE) requirements mandated by the state, said BPS spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo.

Most schools in the city system lack the resources to meet Massachusetts Department of Education requirements of 90 hours of PE per year, Palumbo said.

Adopted this year, BPS’s Wellness Policy, which includes nutrition education and physical activity goals, is part of an effort to move toward meeting those requirements, he said, but PE instruction requires certified teachers.

The Wellness Policy calls for schools to provide programs that fulfill the PE requirement via school-day and after-school programs “to the extent possible.” A separate part of the policy calls on schools to “work with community organizations to provide nutrition education, physical activity, and other options to promote student wellness.”

In conjunction with implementing its Wellness Policy, the BPS this year hired a Wellness Coordinator. Part of that position’s job description is to track how many partnerships between schools and nonprofits are currently under way and what scope of services is being provided. But that work has not yet been completed, Palumbo said.

As far as the PE reqirement is concerned, “To be honest, there is no way the schools have the capacity of reaching it,” Palumbo said.

Schools face a number of different challenges, including lack of facilities, lack of qualified instructors and a lack of hours in the day, Palumbo said.

Many schools cannot afford to “take hours away from instruction in core subjects,” he said.

The state Department of Education has historically turned a blind eye to BPS’s lapses, but BPS Superintendent Carole Johnson and the BPS School Committee are looking at ways to expand the system’s PE program, he said.

For one thing, the district-wide director of physical education has been told to keep better track of what schools are in compliance, he said.

And “the superintendent is committed to finding more time and resources for schools, although the first task is improving the teaching and learning side of things,” Palumbo said.

Johnson is planning to ask for extra funding to expand the BPS PE program in next year’s budget, and “a [PE] pilot program is under study for the next school year,” Palumbo said.

In the meantime, there has not been a PE instructor at the Hennigan in at least six years, Perry said, and Sports4Kids is providing a much-needed service.

“I think it’s phenomenal that they would be interested, especially with the physical shape of young people today. And—the connection between mind and body—this brings it all together,” she said.

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