Students from PS 18 in Mott Haven perform an African dance routine in the Black History Month play hosted by the East Side House Settlement after-school program.PHOTO BY VISHAL PERSAUD

Shh! don’t tell the kids at PS 18 that as they dance, play games and put on plays, they’re getting an education

John Acham, a fourth-grader at PS 18 on Morris Avenue sat in the second row of the school auditorium, in a worn, wooden seat, and stared at the two pieces of paper he held in his hands.

His brow furrowed; with each passing minute, he took more frequent, shorter breaths; he moved from side to side in his seat.

Soon, though, he was on stage, confidently portraying both a slave owner and Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery to become an Abolitionist leader.

Performed during Black History Month, the play was part of the after-school program run by the East Side House Settlement. The program helps to reinforce what children learn in the classroom, but also gives them exposure to subjects they don’t learn about in school, according to Althea Stevens, the East Side House program coordinator at the school.

Students at PS 18 do not spend much time on black history, because they dedicate so much time to prepare for the statewide reading and math tests, said Stevens.

Though most of the students are African-American, “Some of the kids didn’t know who Rosa Park was,” Stevens said. Before they began rehearsals, most of them knew little about the specifics of slavery or the civil rights movement.

Ashley Fenelus, 10, said the play taught her to respect African-American leaders because they “guided us from civil rights and all the things from racism to slavery.”

Because the East Side House after-school program gives them access to arts, dance and music classes, the students learn in a way many of them described as a fun, interactive environment. In addition to the play, the program approached black history through games, including scavenger hunts, trivia and bingo. But black history isn’t the only thing students in the program learn about.

“We bring enrichment in different ways,” said Leslie Mantrone, manager of school-based programs at East Side House. “For the most part they’re not getting a lot of that in school.”

Mantrone described an African dance class as one of the ways students learn through doing. “Physically it helps them, because a lot of kids in this neighborhood don’t move around a lot, and they go home and sit in their apartments,” she said.

During the school day, students and teachers don’t have the liberty of a flexible curriculum, “It’s more structured. We need to follow time constraints,” said Kim Pressley, a fifth-grade teacher at PS 18.

“We teach using the state standards,” said Pressley, who is also a skills developer for the after-school program. Basically, she said, her students are graded on whether or not they meet the New York State standards.

According to Cecilia Espinosa, an associate professor at Lehman College’s Department of Early Childhood and Childhood Education, the absence of enrichment classes in the arts, physical education and dance in New York City’s public schools is “very, very sad.”

“There’s a very narrow emphasis on test factors,” said Espinosa, who blames the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law increased pressure on the states to produce measurable results, leading school systems to rely more heavily on standardized testing. The result, according to Espinosa, is that arts and physical education classes have lost their place in the curriculum of many schools.

Enter after-school programs like the East Side House program that reach beyond the confines of textbooks and citywide and statewide tests.

“They take the time here; they’re a little bit more hands on,” said Jessie Davila, whose two daughters attend the after-school program. She says their participation has improved her daughters’ school work.

Counselors helped the sisters in one-on-one tutorials, said Davila, giving them extra help in reading. The program also provided the creative enrichment they get from music and dance classes.

East Side House has a partnership with PS 18, and works with the school’s administration to develop the after-school program, which is available to any student at the school, free, said Mantrone.

“It’s a whole other piece of learning that is going to help kids be independent and become independent learners,” she said.

A version of this story appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.

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