Project Removes Classroom Walls; After-Class Programs Challenge the Willing to Self-Improvement

Article excerpt

Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Melvin Deal sits at a d'jun d'jun drum, bellowing out commands, "Walk and pick up your feet, and add your elbows. Down, down. March."

Six Lincoln Multicultural Middle School students try to follow along as they learn the steps to the agbadja West African dance.

Mr. Deal, dancing and drumming director for African Heritage Dancers & Drummers in Southeast, tells one of the boys sitting out in a pout to start dancing.

A girl who does not want to dance solo in the circle's center like the others gets a mini-lecture: "If you're afraid to go in, it means you have damaged self-esteem," Mr. Deal says.

Mr. Deal teaches the disciplines of African dance and drumming while addressing the issues of low self-esteem and of juvenile delinquency and violence. He likes to meet students "on their own turf and bring to them ancient knowledge and wisdom that they can apply to everyday life to build respect and discipline .. and to improve their general deportment," he says.

The drumming and dancing lessons are part of Project My Time, an after-school program that offers middle-school students in the District activities focused on youth development and school performance in an effort to lower dropout rates and improve school attendance.

Using grant funds, Lincoln Middle School in Northwest, Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast and Charles Hart Middle School in Southeast are piloting the program. The program began Jan. 22 at the three schools and operates daily from 3:15 to 6:30 p.m. with extended hours during the summer. The program will expand to the remaining middle schools in the District over the next three to five years and then possibly to parks and recreation facilities, libraries and charter schools.

"Kids picked the name Project My Time: my face, my time, my choice, my chance," says Meeta Sharma-Holt, project director for Project My Time, Providing Positive Choices After School, in Northwest. "They're making choices. It's not adults telling them where to go."

Project My Time is an initiative of the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a nonprofit organization based in Northwest that distributes funds to community organizations that offer out-of-school, entrepreneurship and early childhood development programs.

The trust received an initial $8 million grant from the Wallace Foundation, an independent charitable foundation based in New York City, along with $1.6 million in donations from the D.C. community, to fund the initiative. The Wallace Foundation selected the District - along with Boston, Chicago, Providence and New York City - to participate in its Learning in Communities initiative to develop comprehensive programs for out-of-school learning.

The trust is in partnership with several other stakeholders to carry out the initiative, including the mayor's office, the D.C. Council, D.C. Public Schools, district agencies and philanthropic organizations.

"What I'm most excited about with Project My Time is the fact they are aligning quality out-of-school programs with the priorities of the school district in a way that makes sense to education and holistic child development," says Karene C. Brodie, director of the Office of Community Partnerships in the Office of the Superintendent for D.C. Public Schools.

Project My Time staff required interested providers that offer after-school programs to submit activity proposals, says Ellen London, director of external affairs and communications for the trust. The staff based final selection on student and staff input to create an menu of activities schools can pick every quarter, she says. …