After-School Limbo

Middle schoolers are often left to their own devices

For others, the wait is longer. Another sixth grader, 11-year-old Ashley Ward, says she's usually waiting outside till 5, "but if my parents have a conference or something, it might be 6 or 7." She could ride the bus home, but doesn't like the other people who ride the bus. Instead she hangs around: "I play with my friends until they go home, and then I just sit." She'd also join an after-school program "if they had something like swimming, basketball or track."

Sabrine Murphy, 13, is another student who could ride the bus, but just doesn't want to. She, like the others, doesn't do any homework during this wait, but talks with friends. She doesn't always feel safe at the school -- her friend Kathryn Doughtie, 14, says gangs come in after school -- but she doesn't feel all that bad about staying either. She'd be interested in an after-school program that offered dance. Kathryn wouldn't, because she has to go home to baby-sit her ten-year-old brother.

There's a debate about what constitutes a good after-school program. What makes a program good? Is it good if students come to it? Is it good if parents are satisfied? If test scores rise? If creativity flourishes? If average daily attendance in school goes up? If juvenile crime goes down? If social skills and self-esteem improve? What is going to be measured, and who is going to measure it?

The city offers a wide range of after-school walk-in programs through the Parks Department, but some parents want more structure and security than those offer. And kids who don't live near the participating parks can't take advantage of the programs.

At the elementary level, Title I schools teach the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) to raise scores, and do so at no charge to students.

Joe Higgs of the Metropolitan Organization insists after-school programs shouldn't be "just a baby-sitting service" and shouldn't be "TAAS drill and kill," and also stresses they shouldn't be "big government," but should come from parents working with the school to develop the best program.

At Johnston, Principal Nuber made it clear he doesn't want just testing or an extension of the school day, but wants real enriching activities.

Jackson Middle School is the only HISD middle school that's actually started an after-school program as part of the city's pilot project. Since February, the school has offered karate, life-saving classes, landscaping, weightlifting, aerobics and tutoring. Principal Linda Llorente says the experiment is working great: "We don't want them hanging in gangs. We want them in school where we can watch them." This program even provides sandwiches at the end of the day. Llorente says that otherwise, some of the kids wouldn't get any dinner.

Ted Weisgal, head of Leisure Learning Unlimited and parent of a middle schooler, has repeatedly lobbied to create after-school programs not only at Johnston but throughout area schools. After being discouraged for years from starting a program, he got his first friendly reception when he took the idea of a student survey to Principal Nuber. It was from that survey that the eventual middle school program eventually grew.

"More than ever, I am concerned about the crime rate, antisocial behavior and the pure lack of productivity" when students don't have something constructive to do after school, Weisgal said. "I have been thinking about this issue for more than 30 years."

The Johnston PTO met again in early April. There were some questions, some discussion. Nuber assured one woman that no, the basketball coach wouldn't be taken away from his duties with the regular team to supervise after-schoolers playing sports. Finally, a vote was taken. By 142, Johnston took a huge step. Next fall, this school will have an after-school program. It will not require city money, but will support itself through fees. The exact program will be developed over the next several months, but plans include sports, dance, drama and photography.

Nowadays, Nuber says, students hanging around Johnston after the last bell know that if trouble develops, they can run inside and get one of the custodians.

When he first came to the school six years ago, Nuber couldn't drive away each night knowing students were standing out there waiting and unprotected. He tried sending notes home. Some worked, some didn't.

But a principal can't spend all his waking hours at his school. He drives home now. Knowing some of the children will be there, hours after he is gone. He has stopped waiting with them. He has never stopped worrying.

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret_downing@houstonpress.com.

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