After-School Limbo

Middle schoolers are often left to their own devices

The elementary after-school experts weighed in. Given the right program and right demographic makeup, some schools even make money at these after-school programs. Parker Elementary is showing a profit of $6,000. At Rice, a K8 school, program coordinator Linda Poche says the program will probably show a profit of more than $50,000 for the school year. The extra money will buy computers and send teachers to conferences.

Johnston parents expressed concerns, especially after several of the elementary school experts proudly declared that stringing beads was a favorite activity in their program. Middle school parents were sure that wasn't going to fly with their kids. Parents wanted to know whether test scores rose among students in an after-school program, and anecdotal evidence was offered. One parent was concerned that students who ride the bus wouldn't be able to participate, since there's no late bus run.

Throughout the meeting, Nuber remained reassuring and low-key. Parents seemed satisfied by the answers they got, and more inclined to support the program. Though there were few of them, their interest was intense. They promised to return for the final vote on the measure in April.

Principal Nuber is not the first person in Houston to think that an after-school program for middle schoolers is a good idea. Initiatives for Children, Inc. and the COST Coalition hosted a 1996 Houston symposium on planning programs for middle schoolers. The symposium's report highlighted some present programs for middle schoolers, but said many more were needed. The three main barriers: time, money and transportation. The report argued that "youth must be viewed as community assets -- not community problems." It also warned that "youth who grow up in communities that are not supportive of their needs are at high risk of growing up to become adults who are not productive members of society."

Pam Martin, who put the report together for Initiatives for Children, noted that middle schools usually have some forms of extracurricular activities, "but if you're not in cheerleading, sports or drama, what do you do?"

A follow-up summit was convened last November, and parts of the report in draft form were released last week to the Press. One of the primary messages of this meeting was that the approach to juveniles should be based on building the assets they have and instilling more. Doing this, supporters say, will actually save the money that would otherwise be spent on more costly juvenile detention and ultimately adult incarceration.

At the mayor's February Youth Summit, Brown quoted statistics from the FBI, saying that "in 1997, juvenile violent crime had risen almost three times as much as adult violent crime. In 1996, juveniles were involved in almost 37 percent of all burglary arrests, 32 percent of all robbery arrests, 24 percent of weapons arrests and 15 percent of murder and aggravated assault arrests."

In the $2.3 million proposal the city submitted to the U.S. Department of Education on March 9, more statistics about juveniles and crime are cited: "According to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department's 1993 Annual Report, 29,321 juveniles between ages 1016 were processed through the department." Because of these numbers, the report says: "The juvenile probation department has identified the need for supervision for these youths as critical and urgent."

The report also says the average national percentile scores of HISD middle schools attended by children living in targeted public-housing units "are significantly below the national average score of 50." One of the seven goals it sets is to improve test scores by setting up well-planned after-school activities. Another goal is to see a drop in drug use and violence by teaching social skills and self-esteem.

Houston Police Officer Robert Tardy has worked in the juvenile department for almost five years. He says that since he arrived, there have been discussions about the need for after-school programs in Houston. "Everybody talks about it. No one actually does it. Will it work? I don't know."

In the last month, most of the crimes committed between 3 and 6 p.m. were thefts (shoplifting) and assaults, he said. "It comes down to too much time on their hands. They get bored. On the shoplifting, you find out it's not the kids who need it. They just want to do it." As for the assaults, again he blames boredom, pride and quick tempers. They start out as verbal confrontations that lead to physical fighting. "It's wanting to show off to their friends, peer pressure."

It would be nice to think that students were using their waiting-for-pickup time productively, but they're not. Educators say they don't do their homework then. Kids agree. A recent visit to Johnston showed no evidence that this time was being used for much more than companionship and occasional fights. Some kids sat off by themselves, pensively staring into space. Some nervously paced, saying that "gang members" drop by after school.

Sixth grader Josh Levy is picked up by an older sister and sometimes ends up waiting a little while. ("16-year-olds kind of forget a lot," he confides.) But he can call his mom, who reaches his sister, and generally this means he's there no more than 20 minutes after school. He'd go to an after-school program if it was a sports program, and points out the school's empty soccer fields, which are not being used that day. "When you wait out here, there's usually fights. I think it would be nicer to play sports."

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