July 23, 2014

Breaking Out of School Constraints

Beacon drumming group

The Beacon Initiative was recently forwarded a senior thesis written by Morgan Elizabeth Wordes that examines the role of afterschool programs in providing an enriching, holistic educational experience that fills the gaps left by the traditional school day. She draws upon her time working at a Beacon in the early 2000s (Community Bridges Beacon, now called the Mission Community Beacon) and the impact it had on her and the youth she worked with. She writes:

What makes after-school programs so special is that they exist in a realm where power is often placed in the hands of students. They can be on school grounds but a completely different environment. Adults are always present but not always in strict authoritative roles. Some program leaders hold master’s degrees, others only GEDs, but everyone has something to contribute, adult and youth alike. When students are able to leave the bell schedule of traditional school and enter into a less strenuous and pressure filled arena, they feel more comfortable. Here they do not have to worry about being sent to the principal’s office or the grades that they will have to explain later. At the Community Bridges Beacon in San Francisco, students had a short break after school let out when they could relax and de-stress from their classes….after which they gathered in the cafeteria for snacks provided by the school district. “Circle Time” followed, where announcements were made and youth were engaged in group activities. From there the students broke off into their separated groups to start the myriad of programs offered, from homework help to cooking, acting workshops to leadership programs. This coming together before breaking off into unique interests was important as it allowed every one a chance to get acquainted and to acknowledge each other’s presence.

My relationship with the Community Bridges Beacon began my freshman year of high school in the year 2000. I worked there two days a week as a tutor to the middle school students, and two days a week in the Youth Leadership Academy, where myself and my peers came together to learn about the political issues that were important to us, and spent ten weeks working on a project either to spread the word or solve the problem. One of our first activities was to research environmental justice case in the Bayview/Hunter’s Point neighborhood that had various issues such as a PG&E power plant that was creating toxic environments and underground fires in the shipyards. We created informational flyers which we handed out around the city, our own small attempt at spreading the word. I later went on to aid the later participants sponsoring a real debate where the candidates for mayor of San Francisco were invited to answer questions compiled from different youth groups that we worked with. It was important that we were able to play an active role in an environment that was previously foreign to us. These experiences not only helped me to become aware of the world around me, but also to think of myself as a leader, even as a high school freshman. As I grew I was able to return the favor to younger students who followed a similar path that I did.

During the 2003-2004 school year, I worked full time at the Beacon as an Americorps member. My official title was High School Volunteers Coordinator for the After School Learning Academy (ASLA), where I recruited students from local high schools to be trained as tutors and mentors for the middle school students. This was monumental for me because at 18 years old, I was recruiting students from my own high school two blocks away, even friends, and guiding them through all the processes of self discovery and control that I had just gone through. I was able to start a career in education and give back to my community, and I was also helping the very organization that had opened my eyes to community service as a lifestyle instead of a punishment.

A few hours of my workday I spent as a Teacher’s Assistant in Everett Middle School, where our organization was housed. I remember Martin, a repeat 7th grader, who had “behavioral problems” according to his over-worked and easily condemning Social Studies teacher. He was sarcastic and mistrusting of most adults who were quick to tell him his low-points but always ignoring his strengths. I eventually convinced him to join ASLA, and he later told me that he had learned more about genetics during one half hour tutoring lesson with me than he had in class the whole week. He went on to win Most Improved and Outstanding Achievement awards from his school later on in the year. All he needed was someone to understand his unique interests and for someone to sit down and explain things to him that he didn’t get when the teachers raced past him. He later found a love of skateboarding in the newly founded Skateboard club at the Beacon, which he was allowed to attend as long as he was doing his homework and continued attending the tutoring program two days a week. For Martin, the holistic experience of enrichment programming was exactly that: enriching to him as a whole. He developed his social skills and self-confidence by developing relationships with people he trusted, he improved academically not only from tutoring but because his outlook on learning changed, and he developed a new hobby which made him eager. Working with Martin changed my perspective on the students I was working with and the problems that they faced as minors in a system they had no power in, and it also helped me to see how much the programs I dedicated so much time to could really achieve.

Much of what Morgan describes remains true at Beacons today. Walk into any Beacon and you’ll see arts, recreation, leadership, technology, academic enrichment, and a variety of other activities happening. Youth are learning new things, experiencing enjoyment and engagement in learning, and developing positive relationships with peers and adults. Beacon Centers close the gap between school services and community needs; and beyond supplementing the school day, Beacon Center activities nurture the skills necessary to be successful in life and school – problem solving, critical thinking, personal motivation, and confidence. We’re thrilled that her experience at a Beacon was so impactful for Morgan, and that for 20 years Beacons have continued to impact thousands of youth and young adults every year.