For many parents, activities after school for children are intended to enrich their intellectual, leadership, and/or
physical skills, knowledge, self-confidence and health. Engaging in extracurricular activities is not only good for the personal development of school age children, but it will also hopefully give them a leg up for getting into college and receiving scholarships to help pay for their tuition. Afterschool programs also provide a supervised, structured and safe place for children to spend their time when their parents are working.
For many families, however, afterschool programs serve an additional purpose. Afterschool programs are where children are in a safe place and where they won’t become victims and perpetrators of crime, coerced or lured into sex trafficking or abused at home. In addition to providing a safe place for children, afterschool programs are often where children will eat their next meal. There is also the opportunity to receive help with their homework—a chance and encouragement to DO their homework—so their chances are increased that they will be successful in high school and hopefully graduate and go on to college.
Shreveport has a staggeringly high rate of people living in poverty. Lynn Stevens, United Way of Northwest Louisiana’s Chief Operating Officer, reported to the July 11, 2017 Shreveport City Council meeting that 49% of Shreveport either live in poverty or are one paycheck away from living in poverty. Children in Shreveport make up the largest age demographic living in poverty, with 37% of children under the age of eighteen and 49% of children under the age of five living below the poverty line, according to 2015 Census data.
African American children are especially afflicted by poverty in the region. Step Forward, a regional nonprofit which uses data and input from multiple city and business leaders and groups to improve educational outcomes for children in Northwest Louisiana, found 13% of white children under 18 years of age live in poverty, compared to 48% of African American children. The 35-point difference between white and African American children in Northwest Louisiana is larger than the gap at the state level (33%) and at the national level (25%.)
Clay Walker, the director of Caddo Parish Juvenile Services, sees the deleterious impact poverty has on children both from the data he collects and analyzes, as well as what he observes daily at the Juvenile Detention Center and Court. “Poverty negatively impacts children after they are born,” he says, “because the critical time for children’s brain development and learning language is ages zero to three. Kids growing up in poverty are underexposed to singing, talking and reading.” This results in children of lower-income families hearing a staggering 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families by the time they are three years old. Walker explains that when kids start kindergarten with that huge gap in language acquisition, it is as if “we are asking them to run a three-mile race but they are starting two miles behind everyone else.”
Children with large gaps in learning early in their lives will often struggle academically throughout their years in school. They face long odds of completing high school, which means they and their families are likely to live in poverty. Men who dropped out of high school are at a higher risk of being incarcerated. A 2009 study by Northeastern University found that one in every ten young male high school dropouts ends up in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in thirty-five young male high school graduates. For African American men, it is much worse, with one in four going to jail or juvenile detention.
A major reason toddlers from a lower socio-economic background do not acquire the vital language knowledge and skills is an overwhelming majority of these children are in households headed by single mothers. Walker explains, “Single moms are usually undereducated and working two, even three jobs. The stereotype of a single mom sitting on a couch drawing a welfare check is inaccurate. They are not able to be around their kids in their first few years to talk or sing to them enough.”
When children of single, working moms from these lower socio-economic backgrounds go to K-12 school, they fall further behind their wealthier peers and struggle academically. Walker says that “the moms often don’t have the education to help them with their homework and sometimes, they’re not home until 8 or 10 p.m. The fathers are often in prison, so they’re not around. So, after school, their children aren’t supervised, they are often looking after their little brothers and sisters, and they’re not getting help with homework. We have a lot of kids during that time that are being abused and molested during that afterschool time period. That is why in-school services and afterschool programs are a vital part of the village it takes to help poor children. Because if these kids get to me, it means they have committed a crime somewhere and someone is a victim of it. That is what we need to prevent.”
The Caddo Parish school system, like many schools throughout the country, has implemented programs that train teachers to support and assist students’ social and emotional learning in school. Dr. Barzanna White, Caddo Parish School’s District Psychologist, oversees the training and service programs, which are for all students, regardless of their backgrounds. They address character education, bullying prevention, suicide prevention, leadership, and positive reinforcement of behavior. The Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) approach is structured with three tiers of response and support for students, depending on the types of behavior they exhibit. For instance, the first tier offers basic support to all students, such as praising students who are especially kind to others. The second tier is for more complex situations. “Maybe a kid missed breakfast that morning,” Dr. White explains. “Missing that meal means the child will likely have a negative experience all day long in school. So that she doesn’t have that, her teacher might give her an energy bar or let her go to the cafeteria to get a snack. Tier three is when a child is struggling academically, emotionally or socially or all of the above, and teachers and counselors respond with multiple levels of support to help him.”
A recent outside-of-school program is the Team Leadership institute which Dr. White has focused on for the past few years. This program is for high school students who attend schools in high poverty areas, such as Huntington and Woodlawn. One Saturday morning a month, Team Leadership students go to a workshop from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. “We get them transportation, so those who don’t have it can get to the workshop,” Dr. White says. “We feed them breakfast and lunch, and we have guest speakers, most of whom are African American men because students usually have African American and white female teachers. This gives the students some balance.” Dr. White and the program’s school sponsors also took about 65 Team Leadership students to Baton Rouge for Mental Awareness Day and a tour of the state capitol. Many of these students had never been out of Shreveport before and the Baton Rouge trip exposed the students to a new place, allowing them to see that they are not limited to one neighborhood or one community. Next spring, Dr. White will take eight students to Washington, DC.
There is a plethora of afterschool programs within and outside of Caddo Parish schools for low-income children. They vary in size, notoriety, offered activities, and stated missions, but all focus on giving at-risk children skills, knowledge, opportunities, and most of all, nurturing adults and role models that can improve their chances of having a financially and socially stable future. Below are just a few of these programs and what they offer.
Local Afterschool Programs
Boys II Young Men Mentoring Program
Boys II Young Men (BIIYM) is a free mentoring program for boys ages 8-12 from low- to moderate income backgrounds, who live in Caddo and Bossier Parishes. Chris Henry, a firefighter, and his wife Jennifer, a teacher, founded BIIYM in 2015. BIIYM’s mentors and mentees are required to meet a minimum of four hours per month, attending group meetings for two hours and performing community service for two hours. There is also a weekly afterschool communications class the boys attend. Currently, twenty boys are enrolled in the program and almost all come from households headed by a single parent and without a strong male presence.
Henry targets younger boys because they won’t hold back who they are and what they need. “When boys become teenagers,” he said, “they are harder to reach and not as open to changing themselves in a positive way.” The need these boys have for men who pay positive attention to them and care for them is palpable. Henry describes an eight-year-old boy who, when he first met Henry, latched onto his leg and wouldn’t let go for the three hours they were together.
BIIYM is careful, though, not to have the male mentors displace the boys’ mothers as the primary caregivers. Henry explains, “The mothers pick up their sons at the end of the mentoring sessions so the boys aren’t confused of who they’re supposed to be with or that they need to choose between their moms and mentors. It’s critical to keep those relationships intact and balanced.”
Henry says the weekly communications class his wife Jennifer teaches is for the boys to learn the first step in conflict resolution—communicating a non-confrontational response to a potential or real conflict. Every Thursday afternoon, the boys meet in a school classroom with a comfortable environment and write down their thoughts, pencil to paper. “A lot of guys are visual learners and hands-on,” Henry explains. “All I know to do [as a boy] is what I have in my head. If I can see what my thoughts are and review them, I can see that I do not want to carry my thoughts out and I can think of a different way to respond.” The more the boys write, the better they become at assessing their thoughts and responding to conflicts. They also become better at writing, which means they will perform better academically and know how to write strong college and scholarship applications.
Caddo Parish 4-H
Most people have heard of 4-H, an organization that historically has been known for teaching youth how to raise farm animals in rural parts of the United States and has been around for over 100 years. Today, 4-H has chapters throughout the world. Caddo Parish 4-H, a chapter organization of Louisiana 4-H, focuses on teaching young people leadership, citizenship and life skills. It offers a wide range of community service programs and activities, such as shooting sports, fashion, yoga, and weekend camping trips.
Most of Caddo’s 4-H clubs are organized in Caddo schools. A teacher volunteers as a guide and initial student recruiter to the club, but the students nominate leaders and run it themselves. Many of the clubs meet during school hours, but most of the programs and activities happen after school and on weekends. Last year, 806 youth were enrolled in 35 4-H clubs across Caddo Parish
Betsy Willis, an eighth-grade science teacher at Ridgewood Middle School, who has led the school’s 4-H club since 2013, focuses on teaching the 4-H students the importance of respecting themselves and respecting others. Her one guideline for the 4-H students is “do unto others.” “I tell them, if they act and treat themselves a certain way, they have to know that is how their parents, siblings, their own children and their friends are going to act and treat them,” Willis says. She tells her students that this philosophy applies to their communities as well. “It’s important for the students to realize they have to build their communities and take care of them. So we do community service, help the elderly, plant trees, clean up litter, and other things.”
Willis observed her “do unto others” and the 4-H community service projects change many of her students who started out struggling academically and emotionally. She recalls a boy a few years ago who wore an ankle monitor when he first joined 4-H. “He lived with his grandmother and did pretty much what he wanted to do. And then he came to the understanding, ‘I have to take care of my grandmother because one day, I am going to be old and however I’m treating her, it’s going to be done to me.’” While completing the community service projects, the boy discovered he enjoyed planting trees. “I think planting the trees helped his thought process slow down and he was able to get in and enjoy the moment,” Willis says. “And then it helped him slow down and enjoy his grandmother.”
Why does Betsy Willis love leading the 4-H club? “To watch these children change is amazing,” she exults. “To be a part of that change is awesome.”
Renzi Education & Art Center
The Renzi Education and Art Center, founded in 1997 by the Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrow and local artist Donna Service, offers free afterschool academic and art classes to students in grades K through 10. These classes take place in two renovated Highland mansions, whose walls are adorned with art created by Renzi students. Not all, but most of the up to 60 students attending Renzi are from low-income/at-risk backgrounds.
Students take one 50-minute art class and two 25-minute academic classes, Monday through Thursday, during four seven-week sessions during the school year. The kids can choose from a plethora of art classes, taught by professional artists, such as cartooning, painting, and wire sculpture. Renzi offers a variety of academic classes as well, taught by professional teachers who offer individualized instruction and homework assistance to the students.
Hillary Frazier, Renzi’s Program Director, runs the afterschool program, which means she gets to know the students and their families well. She says the homework and core academic classes such as English and math help students academically, but the art classes are often what boost the kids’ self-confidence, which helps them in their studies. “We have kids who struggle in school, but they sew a beautiful quilt, make a cool wire sculpture or find they are good at sign language,” Frazier says. “They see they’ve accomplished something, maybe that their friends at school haven’t and then they have more confidence when doing something that’s hard for them, like science.”
Twirlers In Motion
LaKimbria Washington, who goes by Kim, started Twirlers In Motion (TIM) for Northwest Louisiana, a baton twirling group that “encourages youths’ physical, mental, and social success one move at a time.” Washington founded TIM because she was in a baton twirling group when she was a kid and could have “easily become another statistic of a young black kid never going outside of the low-income communities and mentalities.” Washington grew up in Shreveport and her mother was an on-again, off-again single mother of five. As a child, Washington’s family moved frequently, which made her childhood chaotic.
When her aunt enrolled her in the twirling group, the Dixie Diamond Baton Corporation, Washington found a group and place that helped ground her, give her new skills, and open her to opportunities she would not have had otherwise. “Baton twirling helped me become confident, to express myself, and accept constructive criticism,” she recalls. “I got to travel inside and outside the United States for tournaments and performances and meet other kids who had different family structures than me. I saw I could have a different family structure than the one I had.”
Washington founded TIM so she could offer the same opportunities she gained from being in Dixie Diamond to a new generation of children. While TIM classes are not free, she has made them affordable for single parents and parents with multiple children. “Extracurricular activities are very expensive and can really be taxing on families, especially those with more than one child,” she says. “Our program is about bridging the gap.”
The afterschool programs described here and the many other programs in our community all need volunteers to serve the children who take part in these programs—to help children with their homework, teach them new skills and topics, and crucially—nurture and mentor them. They also need donations, both monetary and in-kind. It is important that we all participate in the village that it will take to ensure that every child in Shreveport has the opportunity to thrive in school and beyond.