COLLEGE STATION - With more Americans working harder and longer than ever, it’s giving children more free time alone after school and that free time isn’t being put to good use.
“We’ve got a whole generation of kids that are illiterate as what to do with their free time because of television and other things,” said Dr. Peter Witt, head of the recreation, parks and tourism sciences department at Texas A&M University. “They don’t read. Many of these kids don’t interact well with other kids.”
In many neighborhoods across the country, there’s no mall, not even a movie theater.
“And we turn around and wonder why kids get into trouble,” Witt said.
An endowed chair for at-risk youth has been established at Texas A&M University, setting the pace for future programs and research aimed at giving kids across the country the opportunity to learn through recreation, while at the same time having fun.
The Sequor Foundation recently donated $500,000 that was matched by Texas A&M University to establish the Elda K. Bradberry Chair the catalyst for improving and understanding the relationship between youth recreation services and the prevention of risk behaviors including dropping out of school, drug use, and unwanted pregnancy.
Witt is regarded as an expert by parks and youth recreation officials on issues relating to youth who come from high risk environments. He specializes in research involving the evaluation of the effectiveness of various youth after-school, weekend and summer programs.
Witt said the endowment will establish new study and continue established programs targeted for at-risk youth.
“The chair enables us to further some things we’ve already been working on in the department and go to the next step,” Witt said. “Since 1993, we’ve been involved in a whole series of activities. For example, we’ve held a national conference every year called Prevention Through Recreation.’ That’s been held in Fort Worth, and we’re ready to move it to Phoenix, Austin and other cities. And we’ve done a whole series of evaluation studies of different recreation programs that have been offered for youth in Texas communities.”
Those studies have helped analyze city-initiated after-school youth programs, which are funded by tax dollars. The programs are aimed at cutting down high crime rates and dropout numbers.
“These studies are providing city council members and citizens some kind of bottom line, that if people are going to invest in these programs, what are they going to get for their money?” Witt said.
The agenda for the endowment over the next five years includes research and evaluation concerning the impact of recreation programs developed for at-risk youth and after-school programs. While some evaluation of the impact of after-school programs has already taken place, Witt noted, more is needed, in particular, further study and evaluation of programs that have educational goals, but operate in a recreational context.
“There has been a lot of discussion of adults in kids lives,” Witt noted. “We need leaders that are doing more than just throwing out balls, but serving as mentors and organizing activities. If a conflict situation arises, they can teach conflict resolution.”
One of those programs is the Roving Leader Program, where adults head to the streets in search of kids needing something to do after school.
“Parents are always teaching their kids not to talk to strangers,” Witt said. “Well, these are strangers that go out and find kids. They wear T-shirts to identify themselves, and they have identification cards … but they get parental permission before they work with the kids.
“The idea is to engage them on the streets and move them from the street to other kinds of activity centers.”
Two major cities in the United States already implementing this type of program are San Antonio and Austin, Witt said.
“We’ve documented these programs and as a result of the endowment, we’ve got a student that is spending six months working within the Roving Leader Program in Austin to get an inside look,” Witt said. “From that, we’ll have a lot more information to pass on. The major question we’re asking is what are the qualities of an outstanding Roving Leader? Can they train people better? Can they hire better people? How can they duplicate the characteristics of the high quality people they have?”
Witt has worked extensively with Janet Martin, recreation services manager for the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department. Martin established the Roving Leader Program in Austin prior to moving to San Antonio.
“The intent of the program is to go out into communities that have little or no structured recreation or recreational facilities,” Martin said. “What you do is use recreation as the hook. You might be down at the park and while playing basketball at the park, you ask the kids what they do for fun. You then begin to build a relationship with the kids hoping that it will turn into a mentorship.”
The adult then talks about the importance of school, and as the relationship develops, weekend activities, such as canoeing, are incorporated.
“Dr. Witt has helped give me a lot of feedback and insight,” Martin said. “He’s helped me
do a lot of research, justify and evaluate why these programs help kids.”
The Austin City Council pledged $1.4 million to increase the number of after school-programs and the caliber of programs offered through their parks and recreation programs, Witt said. But the council later wanted to be informed if the money spent was a sound investment and so far it has, Witt said.
“I’ve been working with them for four years to document their programs, and as a result of that I’ve made a written report to the council,” Witt said. “For three years, I’ve gone before the city council and discussed with them the programs. I’ve done that in four or five cities where they ask me to come in.
“The average opinion of elected officials or the person on the streets is this stuff is just fun and games. They don’t see that when kids are doing OK in a community, that’s fine, that’s how it should be. When it goes wrong, they turn to everybody they can find to try to make this better. But the reality is, it is an issue of how kids use their time.”
An after-school program offered by the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department is also helping educate kids in the Dallas Independent School District.
Ralph Mendez, assistant parks and recreation director for the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department, said the school district has earmarked $2 million towards an after-school program that includes 37 schools.
“Dr. Witt helped us evaluate the program, establish performance measures, and provide information as to what other cities were doing so we could benefit from their experiences,” Mendez said. “Because of the information and research he provided, we were able to develop a strong partnership with the Dallas school district.”
The after-school program involves tutoring and homework assistance. But one of the problems encountered during the early stages was that some of the students didn’t come with their homework assignments completed.
Mendez said that’s when the principals stepped in.
“They told them if the kids didn’t do their homework, they couldn’t participate in the after-school program,” Mendez said.
School children participate in soccer clinics, arts and crafts, drawing, stained glass classes, and other activities.
Witt said what he and others are aiming for is giving kids positive, constructive things to do and keep them from getting involved in negative activities.
“The question is how to use that free time productively where kids still think they’re having fun,” Witt said. “But we know it has another purpose to it. Fun is the hook.”