An after-school program on the Upper West Side is helping transform troubled kids By Helaina Hovitz When representatives from the Strycker's Bay Neighborhood Council and the DOME (Developing Opportunities through Meaningful Education) Project arrived at The Commons (696 Amsterdam Ave., part of the New York Housing Authority complex), they found an after-school program that was essentially a chaotic holding bin for low income, at-risk kids. Staff stayed in their offices and ignored the children, many of whom were, in large part, angry and defiant. Now, the space is full of happy-looking kids who are energetic yet self-contained, and it's hard to believe that just months earlier, a majority of them were screaming at each other and kicking garbage cans. Last September, the two organizations acquired the community center through the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and created an after school program known as the West Side Neighborhood Commons, offering educational and emotional support to local kids. A graduation ceremony celebrates the end of the first full school year, Thursday, June 20. "This graduation will let the kids know that whether or not they see it in themselves, we've seen that they have grown and changed," said Kelley Williams, executive director of Strycker's Bay Neighborhood Council. When the new staff first arrived, the children were resistant, telling program coordinators that they "hated" them and wanted the old staff back. "The old staff did nothing for them. Nobody was being consistent with these kids. They'd do half their homework and say, 'I don't have to finish the teacher doesn't check it anyway,'" explained site coordinator Ramon Vasquez, 45. "And if they didn't get what they wanted, they'd get destructive. One kid even flipped a chair on me." Now, the same group of children have learned to express -- effectively and respectfully -- their feelings and ask for what they want. "Last week, when I asked that same child who flipped the chair to do something, he walked across the room and politely said, 'Excuse me, could you please repeat what you asked me to do? I didn't hear you,'" Vasquez recalled. Williams also believes that something as small as a child saying, "Excuse me, I need a mouse for my computer, please," is a huge achievement. "These are all kids that would be categorized as difficult to work with and troubled, and they're not getting positive reinforcement at home or school," Williams explained. "A kid might say, 'Joey's my friend,' but he's hitting Joey. They need to learn what it means to be a good friend, and we've been surprised by the response. Now, the same child will approach us and say, 'Jason is helping Joey, he's being a good friend.'" [caption id="attachment_64415" align="alignright" width="300"](http://nypress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Robles-and-John.jpg) Robles and John playing at the after school program.[/caption] Ask the kids what their favorite part of the program is, and, you'll get bombarded with shouts of "Making ice cream!" "Dancing!" and "Swimming!" "I love drawing flowers with feelings on them," said Brianna Marie Martinez, 8, referring to an exercise in which the children write out their emotions on the flower's petals. She and her friends Diorismery, 7, Natalia, 7, and Myziriya, 5, proceeded to perform a dance they learned from their dance teacher, although the boys weren't allowed to watch, "because then it's scary." While sneaking a peak anyway, 11-year-old John tore his gaze away to remark, "The teachers help me with my homework, I get confused and it's nice to have help. I really want to be here." Also close by was seven-year-old Nyheem, whose birthday is "Summer 13th." He has discovered a love of photography, something he knows he's good at. Similarly, Ziki, 4 is a great photographer, too, and specializes in "group portraits." The kids partake in drumming class, computers, drawing, and field trips to museums, parks, and places like the Brooklyn Aquarium and Governors Island. Without the program, says Williams, they'd likely be alone or wandering around. Additionally, the program fills gaps in the public school system by offering students individualized homework help. Tomas Almemares, 19, who attended the program himself over a decade ago when it was less structured, is now a counselor. "The biggest difference I see is that the kids can actually read and have a full-blown conversation with an adult, compared to limited responses of, "I don't know,' or 'I don't understand you.' We sound out the letters together when we read," he said. In October, Aimee David, 10, wouldn't talk to anyone and was generally discontent, refusing to participate in group activities. Now, she's the first to volunteer to talk to visitors who come to see the school. "I really love it here," she said with a smile. [caption id="attachment_64432" align="alignleft" width="300"](http://nypress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Keshawna-and-Aimee-learning-chess.jpg) Keshawna and Aimee learning chess[/caption] Her friend, Keshawna Seignious, 11, appreciates another part of the curriculum. "They're always pushing us to be a better person, a bigger person, and they give us goals for the future," she said. "We talk about bullying, stress, and how not to cyber bully, because people could be sad and depressed and commit suicide." The collective "graduation" is an important opportunity to acknowledge the hard work put in by all, but if Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget cuts pan out, it may be their first and last year. The new program, along with 250 other after school programs, could be forced to shut down. "We hope Gale Brewer, our City Council Representative, will advocate for us. But nothing is guaranteed," Williams said. The facility space itself is owned by NYCHA and funded by Department of Youth and Community Development. If they are forced to shut down, the doors to the center won't close, but there will be no curriculum, lesson plans, math and literacy programs, staff, or individualized attention. Essentially, it would go right back to what it was before they arrived. The program needs $106,000 a year to operate, costs that include hiring staff, an educational and site coordinator, and buying prizes for the kids. Prizes are awarded for good behavior as part of a newly implemented positive reinforcement system; tickets get you free time on a computer, lunch with Ms. Williams, ice cream, or other prizes. "These kids has always been targeted with negative talk, and that clearly wasn't working," said Williams, as Ziki, 4, came running over with a ticket, happy as could be. "I was listening to Jason when he said it was time to clean up!" he said as he held it up over his head with pride. Jasmine Chandoo, their educational coordinator, implemented the new rewards system as a way to offer incentives for good behavior. "Please and thank you aren't even words they learn at home. Once you get them emotionally on board, everything else falls into place," Chandoo said. "But if we're not funded, for next year, they'll have no positive role models, and all of this will be lost." All are keeping fingers crossed that the program receives the funding it needs, especially Christopher Robles, 7, who must continue working his way down the list of things he can draw, including but not limited to, "The solar system, Star Wars, the Middle East, Texas, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Liberty Island, Roosevelt Island, the whole world, Hawaii," and 30 other places that he can now list by name, alphabetically.
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