Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sports Academy for struggling teens makes a difference

Program involves police, recreation to redirect students who could be headed for trouble

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A recently introduced after-school program at Seneca Valley High School is winning praise from students and school officials for improving grades and attitudes toward academics.

‘‘It’s all positive,” said Alan Fathi, a sophomore who believes the Sports Academy program contributed to a dramatic rise in his grades since it began in February. ‘‘I have nothing bad to say. I would recommend it to all schools.”

Fathi is one of 75 to 150 students who show up in the school cafeteria from 2:30 to 5 p.m. four days a week to participate in the Sports Academy, a county-run recreation program focused on improving their academic performance and keeping them out of trouble.

‘‘We love the program,” said Principal Suzanne Maxey. ‘‘A lot of kids are involved in it. It’s very well supervised and well organized.”

Despite its name, the Sports Academy encompasses far more than sports. The program mixes adult supervision and academic help with a wide variety of leisure opportunities ranging from video games, flag football and basketball to weekend trips to amusement parks and plays.

The program is open to all students, but much of it is designed to encourage students struggling with grades or showing signs of getting into trouble with the law to change their attitudes and behavior. Students need parental permission to participate.

A Montgomery County police officer was among the nine adults in the cafeteria supervising the students on Monday; the others came from the recreation department. An on-duty officer is assigned to work with students each day.

‘‘The Sports Academy started out to address the gang issue,” said Melanie Coffin, manager of the recreation department’s teen team. ‘‘Many of our students we know are gang involved. That’s why the police play such a large role with us.”

John Quarless, a recreation specialist with the department who leads the Sports Academy at Seneca Valley, said he believes much of the program’s success can be attributed to the trustful relationships the supervising adults have with the students.

In an interview Monday in the cafeteria at the conclusion of the day’s program, Fathi said the program’s combination of sports and fun has worked for him, noting that he entered the program in February with a grade point average of 1.0 that he has since raised to 3.0. He attributed the difference to help he receives with his homework.

‘‘Everything is going uphill for me now,” he said.

The Sports Academy is part of a larger effort to bring more after-school recreation to upcounty after years of focus on the downcounty, Coffin said. The program at Seneca Valley is the sixth in the county — the first upcounty.

Another county after-school program, RecExtra, has begun reaching upcounty schools in the last two years, including Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown. RecExtra differs from the Sports Academy by funding after-school programs that are organized and staffed by teachers and school support staff.

Coffin said problems linked to lack of English-speaking skills, low income and gang activity led county officials to focus the first Sports Academy programs on downcounty schools.

Last year, they began studying schools upcounty as sites for further expansion. They considered information from police and the county executive’s office, student grade point averages and the ability and willingness of schools to form a partnership with the recreation department, Coffin said. All of the factors led them to Seneca Valley, she said.

Shawn Joseph, the principal at Clemente, estimated that RecExtra helps pay for programs involving 150 to 200 students. He cited clubs for Spanish, chess, Latin cooking, mentoring and homework as some of RecExtra’s main beneficiaries. Joseph attributed a 61 percent drop in suspensions at Clemente this year partly to the advantages of RecExtra.

Coffin said close study of the Sports Academy program at downcounty schools showed that its participants were making academic gains. Some raised their grade point averages and others ‘‘went from zero percent homework turned in to 100 percent,” she said.