Program gives kids a boost in confidence
Last week I dropped in on a summer program for at-risk youth in Schenectady and found myself talking to a 13-year-old girl named Tiana.
Our conversation wasn’t all that long, but I found it edifying.
Tiana explained that she learned about the program though a social worker at Schenectady’s Mont Pleasant Middle School, where she is a student, and that she was initially wary of it because she thought it would be like school.
“I like it a lot,” she said. “More than I expected.”
I asked Tiana what she likes about the program. I expected her to list favorite activities and field trips, but instead she talked about being given the opportunity to choose what she wants to do for the day. “I feel like my life is controlled for me and I don’t get to decide what I want to do,” she says. “Here it’s different. I get to decide.”
She added, “I know I’m safe here.”
Tiana’s summer program is run by the Liberty Partnerships Program, a Schenectady County Community College-based organization that provides academic support, such as tutoring, for students in danger of dropping out of school.
This is the second year LPP has sponsored a summer program. And while the hope is that students will return to school with a sense of purpose and self, it is not supposed to look or feel like school.
Instead, it aims to promote leadership development, critical thinking, community involvement and teamwork. Richard Smith, who serves as LPP’s director, said that students who believe in themselves and are hopeful about the future are more likely to stay in school, and the summer program — officially known as the Leadership Institute — is supposed to cultivate those qualities.
“I see a level of confidence growing in these kids,” Smith told me.
There are about 35 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders in LPP’s summer program, which is held at the YMCA and SCCC offices located in Center City. They all live in low-income homes headed by single parents, and are either black or Hispanic. Most of them attend Mont Pleasant, which garnered negative headlines last school year for reports of fighting, poor behavior and staff turnover.
To me, the LPP program felt like a combination of summer camp and academic enrichment.
Students had time to play games, talk and hang out with their peers, but they also worked on group projects, looking at problems such as violence in the community, tended a local garden, took a field trip to Albany City Hall to meet Mayor Kathy Sheehan and listened to guest speakers. One speaker talked about how to dress for job interviews, another taught the students about their legal rights when interacting with police officers.
Watching the kids, I wondered what they would take away from the program, and whether they were actually learning anything, which is something I used to wonder about when I worked at summer camp during college. Did our positive messages ever have a lasting impact? Or did the kids forget about them as soon as they returned home?
When I first visited the LPP kids, they were in the gym, hanging out and playing basketball; soon after, they broke into groups to work on projects. As an outside observer, it was hard to gauge exactly how the kids felt about what they were doing, and, while they seemed happy enough, they also seemed distracted and inattentive. Which is, I suppose, typical of teenagers in groups.
Even so, I was surprised by the enthusiasm a 14-year-old named Faith expressed for the program.
“This is the first time I’ve done a program like this,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of fun stuff.”
“We learned about gardens, how to grow stuff,” she said. “They’ve been teaching us ways to respect people. If you’re shaking someone’s hand, you should look them in the eyes. If you’re on a job interview, don’t wear dirty clothes.”
I asked both Faith and Tiana how they would have spent the summer if they hadn’t enrolled in the program.
“At home,” Faith said. “Or at a friend’s house.”
“Outside all the time,” Tiana said.
Whether the lessons of the LPP program will stick remains to be seen.
But the program has already provided plenty of value.
It has kept kids off the street, and ensured that they are occupied for much of the day. It has given them things to think about, and a taste for making decisions and developing goals. Perhaps most importantly, it has provided a safe place for kids like Tiana and Faith. Will it change their lives? I have no idea. But it showed them a good time and taught them a few things, and that’s something.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at email@example.com or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.