Monday, April 19, 2010

From Slam Dunks to "A's"

How does an after-school program help its kids succeed not only on the court, but also off the court and in their classrooms? Project Coach has brought in Mike Dean to help make that success happen for their coaches.

Mike is Project Coach’s Academic Coach, a position given just this year. He has been with PC for 3 years and became involved after hearing about it from his rugby teammate, none other than Andy Wood. Mike and Andy both share an English accent and thus quickly bonded. Mike was very interested in PC and eagerly became involved and began working with team bonding at the start of the program for the teens. He is currently attending Berkshire and Holyoke Community Colleges studying physical education with a teacher preparation and a focus on movement sciences, and is hoping to transfer to Springfield College in the fall. He is minoring in health, coaching, and YMCA preparation. Needless to say, Project Coach and Mike are a good match!

When asked what Project Coach means to him, he responded, “From the outside, I really like the program. I like what it does for all three parties involved—the young kids, the teens, and the graduate students. The young kids come in, can play with older teens in their own community, and learn about sports as well as health. The teens broaden their horizons, learn how to work with younger kids, and become mentors. For the grad students, they can apply what they learn inside the classroom to the real world, and see how they, as graduate students, can create leaders out of teenagers”. On a more personal level, Mike, in interacting with the high schoolers himself, sees what aid he and the program can give to the students that they wouldn’t be receiving without Project Coach. “Project Coach gives them responsibility and enables them to learn how to take initiative”.

So what exactly does an Academic Coach do? Mike brings with him a white notebook that holds a sheet on every high school student along with a copy of the student’s most recent grades. On this sheet are the coach’s name, age, the student’s challenges, goals, and benefits to be received from completing these goals. All these categories are completed at his frequent and reoccurring meetings with each coach.

At these meetings, Mike pulls one coach aside at a time and begins a conversation. He shows them their sheet from their last session and they review it together, as Mike discusses with the teen what progress has been made and what goals may need to be revisited. Looking in on a meeting with Coach Stephen:

Mike asks, “How have your classes been going?”

Stephen answers with a smile, “I just got an 100 on my math quiz”.

Mike: “And how’d that feel?”

Stephen: “Great! I started dancing!”

Mike: “As you should, I got a good grade just recently on my psychology test and I shouted ‘Yeah’!”

Mike not only gives each student advice in how to improve academically, he also relates to the teens and shows them he truly cares about their success. He also does not give them answers, but he asks them how they think they can improve and helps them in developing their own concrete solutions.

Mike: What can you do to improve in class?

Ismael: Pay more attention in class.

Mike: How?

Ismael: Stop talking.

Mike: And how will you do that?

Ismael: Sit away from friends.

Mike: Give me specific location.

Ismael: In the front, closer to the teacher.

Mike: Perfect!

Mike’s effort to show the teens he cares is very apparent, and the kids react positively with smiles and sincere promises to reach the goals them and Mike develop.

So, how does Project Coach help its kids succeed off the court? It provides the students with a constant supporter who they know is continually watching their academics and checking in with them. Mike is a figure in their lives to keep pushing them forward and to remind them that they are capable of accomplishing any goal. Success happens when someone believes in you.

By Marie Wallace

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Problem Solving...The Project Coach Way

Project Coach teaches its students about a myriad of different things, from sportsmanship to how to dribble, from study habits to how to talk to your teacher, and much more. The program covers a wide variety of skills, and one of the beauties of PC is that it teaches its students these skills and messages both explicitly and implicitly. While much of Project Coach is dedicated to tutoring, it is through the presence of engaged and intellectually-stimulated grad students, community members, and other adults who show the possibilities that come with education that much of the tutoring happens. Though high-schoolers run drills teaching the younger kids how to dribble the ball, it is through successful coaching that the high-school mentors show the middle and elementary school kids how to be a team player.

This past week at Project Coach, something unique happened that doesn't take place at every youth program. Andy, Sam, Don, and other adults of PC turned to the students and asked, what can we do for you? Instead of talking amongst themselves about what is best for the students, the PC staff decided to be open, honest, and candid with the high-schoolers about how to beef up the academic element of Project Coach.

Though many of the workbook activities and lessons learned on the field as a coach show the high-schoolers how deal with conflict and work as a team, it was this open discussion last week that taught each coach implicitly, through equal engagement with the PC staff, about problem solving.

Andy opened the discussion by talking about wanting to get grades up on the whole, and asked directly for input from the kids about how to make this happen. It was clear from the beginning that PC staffers were not paying lip service to the idea of input from the kids, but instead genuinely sought the guidance and expertise of the high-schoolers as coaches and participants in their own education. Sam addressed the group, all sitting together around round tables, "You know better than us what will work and what won't."

In small groups, the coaches tackled three specific questions: what about the academic side of PC isn't working? What would work for you as an individual? What can the program do on the whole? Each group of three to five kids had much to say on the topic; some comments like "teachers just want to teach and get it over with" showed some of the downsides of the educational system at large, while other suggestions for Project Coach, including a request for MCAS as well as SAT prep and the need for more tutoring time slots, showed definite ways in which PC could extend or rework its program in order to better serve the coaches.

In one small group, a high school sophomore said "If I don't go to college right after high school, I probably won't go," to which a Smith graduate student and PC staffer asked if he wanted to go to college; "of course" said the sophomore, and started talking about his teachers' lack of enthusiasm in the classroom. The Smith grad student took diligent notes and nodded her head vigorously; training to be a teacher herself, she was especially affected by the high-schoolers comments.

In terms of brainstorming, Francesca thought it might be a good idea for Project Coach to withhold the coaches' salaries when their grades did not meet certain qualifications. Cedric asked for more tutoring. Ziggy suggested, "Why don't you start a Project Coach school?"

The common theme among comments from high-schoolers was wanting more from Project Coach--everything that existed was already working well, but it was just a matter of getting more of it.

Another common theme was, as Gabriella said, "resources." Often tutoring sessions or different time slots that Project Coach could offer were not feasible because of limits in transportation and time conflicts with after-school jobs and family obligations.

After the discussion, there wasn't any simple or perfect resolution. Nevertheless, what struck me even more than the topic itself or the particular problem at hand was the way in which Project Coach created a venue for partnership between the coaches and the staff, and how the program demonstrated the process of problem solving: identify the problem, work together, think outside the box. Surely the coaches will take these implicitly learned lessons and messages to the field, as well as to their everyday life.

By Molly Ristuccia

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Visit from the Doctors...

At a visit to Project Coach this week, I had the pleasure of talking to two local doctors from the North End of Springfield. Dr. Hilda Rivera and Dr. Miguel Mujica are both in their third year studying internal medicine at the Brightwood Health Center, directly across the street from the heart of Project Coach. Last October, Dr. Mujica helped teach the Project Coach students about sexually transmitted infections and general first aid.

This spring, Rivera and Mujica are joining forces to talk about healthy eating. Dr. Rivera said mostly what the kids need is an "awareness" of the issues, linking healthy eating to preventing diseases such as diabetes. The North End of Springfield is what many in the food justice movement would call a "food desert," that is, there is a lack of healthy and affordable grocery stores in the area. Recently, a group of graduate students from MIT conducted a project mapping the food choices in the North End. Mapping corner stores, bakeries, farmer's markets, and other food sources in the area, the grad students focused on showing the lack of healthy food options in the city.

The map of their findings can be seen here:

In addition, Rivera and Mujica spoke about their partnership with Project Coach as a way of showing the students that they can reach for higher education, such as medical school. Rivera said that she hopes to show the coaches, "You can come from any socioeconomic class and become a doctor." Usually, Rivera and Mujica volunteer their time at a local elderly center; with a grin, both doctors commented on how there was much more energy, input, and different dynamic with the teens at Project Coach.

By Molly Ristuccia

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hitting the Books @ PC

Project Coach is not just an after school program—it is a support system. Sam, Don, Andy, and the Grad Students aren’t there only to teach the Springfield teens how to become sports coaches; they support the growth and development of the full teen. An example of the extra steps Project Coach takes for its students is its tutoring program. Project Coach takes Smithie volunteers and matches them up with teen coaches who agree to bring work they need help on. One such Smith tutor, is First Year Abbie Alexander, a 19 year old from Nashville, Tennessee. And this is her story:

She came to Smith because she wanted to know New England and loved the open curriculum and thought Smith provided its students with a great global awareness. She is currently unsure of her major, but is thinking of majoring in sociology, with an education minor.

Abbie heard about Project Coach after they came to talk at Smith’s Senate and the description of Project Coach’s goals reminded her of a program she was involved back home in Nashville. “I did a lot of work with youth empowerment in Nashville, and I really loved Project Coach’s model of youth engagement and commitment to helping youths succeed. It is really great to know there are programs out there that actually care about the development of teens and their success”.

Before her first time tutoring at PC, Abbie had no expectations. But when she arrived on Monday, her first tutoree, Alyssa, and her really hit it off. “She was big into University of Tennessee basketball, so we bonded over that, and also, Alissa really liked Pat Summit, and I actually met her, so we also spent some time talking about why Pat Summit is such a great role model. Then, later on during the Project Coach teaching session, Alissa, actually called me over to point out a picture of Pat Summit she had found in her book! I felt like I had actually connected with her, it was such a great feeling!”

I asked Abbie, after being a part of Project Coach’s tutoring program for a month now, what she thinks of the program. She said, “Not many teens get the chance to coach younger kids and I think people underestimate the effort that goes into coaching. To be a coach, one needs to understand how kids operate and how to reach out to them. So, for a high schooler to step into that role, that is really impressive”.

Finally, I asked Abbie how she thought the tutoring aspect of Project Coach added to the program as a whole. After thoughtfully thinking about this question, Abbie answered, “When giving youth the opportunity to take on such a highly responsible role, you have to acknowledge that they need adequate support to fulfill that role. By providing tutoring to the high schoolers, Project Coach ensures their kids are being taken care of in the big picture scheme of things. This helps not only the livelihood of the Project, but sets the students up for all around success. They need support to do their job, but also support as a developing youth. This is a goal Project Coach accomplishes”.

By Marie Wallace