After-School Limbo

Middle schoolers are often left to their own devices

It's 3:30 in the afternoon, the bell sounds and 1,400 kids are released from Johnston Middle School. Norman Rockwell time -- haven't we all seen that picture?

But not all the kids at this Westbury-area school are running joyously home, being picked up by school buses or chauffeured to lessons or sports activities. For some, there isn't much of anywhere to go or anyone to go home to. So they hang.

They hang outside the school waiting -- some for hours -- waiting for parents, a ride home. Between the ages of 11 and 15, they're too young to work, too old for daycare. They hang around the school in a time limbo created by their age and family circumstances.

Some sit for three hours or more waiting for someone to come pick them up. Others go straight home, but no adults are there.

Educators, police and community volunteers worry about those idle hours. "We certainly may tell them they are supposed to be doing homework, but..." Johnston Principal Joe Nuber says, raising his hands and shrugging his shoulders. He's the driving force behind the after-school effort at his middle school. For the marginal students, he says, a program "might spark an interest that could just turn them around." It isn't just a question of whether the kids get in trouble. It's also a question of whether they're getting the best possible use of their time.

Johnston is not a "bad" school. There's no barbed wire around the open campus, where the student body consists of almost equal parts African-Americans, whites and Hispanics, plus about 5 percent Asian-Americans. Discipline problems are dealt with rigorously, Nuber says, to ensure that the magnet school for the performing arts remains a safe place.

Schools need to regain their place in society as community centers, Nuber believes. When his school puts on a concert, everyone in the neighborhood is invited. In turn, he wants the community to see the schools as more than a repository for children during school hours. "I personally believe that, in just a few years, schools will be open from 7 to 7," Nuber says.

Rogene Gee Calvert, co-chair of COST (Children's Out of School Time) and a member of the joint City/County Commission on Children, two of the groups whose members have worked to see more after-school programs implemented, also believes that schools are the right entities to handle kids after the usual end of the instructional day. "Check with any public library," she says. "A lot of kids end up hanging out there till their parents come pick them up every day. Why can't they hang out at the school libraries?"

One problem is money. The city of Houston and the local school districts do not have a good record of working together on educational funding. City Council members like Rob Todd think matters should stay that way. Last fall, Todd opposed city funding for after-school programs for disadvantaged children, saying the school district should pay for them. The Council did approve $100,000 for an after-school pilot project at 11 schools -- but only after it was pressured by groups including the Metropolitan Organization, a coalition of 45 church congregations. Councilman Chris Bell spoke up for the measure, calling claims that the program's funding was not the city's responsibility "a cop-out."

In a radical departure from the past, Mayor Lee Brown started his reign by pledging $120,000 for after-school programs. He's asking for another $800,000 for after-school funding in his next fiscal budget, the most ever requested in Houston.

Even with the best of intentions, problems remain. More than five months after the City Council voted $100,000 to fund the after-school pilot program, the schools didn't have their money. HISD and the city were still wrangling over paperwork.

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio all have better records, with much more established histories of giving school districts money for after-school education.

"San Antonio has a very good history of getting city involvement in social services," says Leonel Castillo, Mayor Brown's point man on education. "Houston doesn't have that progressive tradition."

On a Monday night in early March, Nuber addressed a meeting of the Johnston Parent Teacher Organization, which was weighing the merits of starting an after-school program. Nuber enumerated some of the problems such a program would face: Many people consider sixth graders old enough to take care of themselves. There are few role models available. There is the cost. There is the work involved in pulling a program like this together.

The turnout of about 25 people was not impressive, particularly since several of those in attendance were actually volunteers running after-school programs in elementary schools -- there to offer advice. Many parents who had initially been supportive of an after-school program changed their minds after finding out there would be a charge for it. They didn't show up for the meeting.

Undaunted, Nuber went ahead, saying that he thinks after-school programs for middle schoolers are even more necessary than those for elementary school children. Middle schoolers, he said, "can experiment with things that can get them into trouble."

Standing by was Castillo, who told the group that the city wants each school to design its own program; there is no city master plan. This is something that should come from the school, its students, parents and teachers and the community. The city, in turn, has agreed in principle that if it builds a swimming pool or a library in a neighborhood, it builds them on a school site.

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."

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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