Freshmen bypass extracurriculars

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Ronald Stewart, a freshman at Gage Park High School, has a busy spring schedule. He runs track, plays baseball and is a member of the Beta Club, an academic team that competes against other schools.

But Stewart is exceptional, judging by the results of a recent study of how Chicago 9th-graders spend their after-school hours.

Among 16,000 students surveyed last year, only 27 percent were involved in structured activities such as school, community or religious programs in the four hours after-school, according to the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

High schools have a tougher job recruiting kids for after-school programs than elementary schools do, says Beth Swanson, director of CPS after-school programs. “You really have to have a quality program, because teens are brutally honest. If they don’t like it, they’re not going to show up.”

In fact, organized sports and clubs were among the least popular after-school activities, according to the survey. Students were far more likely to spend time alone, hang out with friends, supervise younger children, or do homework.

But kids who bypass extracurricular activities miss opportunities to bond with adult mentors who can help shape their career and education goals, says Georgia Hall, a research scientist at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time. These kids are also more prone to risky behavior if left unsupervised, she adds.

Not surprisingly, spending time with adults was one of the least common reasons kids gave for participating in after-school activities. Being with friends and having fun were the most common. Stewart says he joined the track team at Gage Park to have fun. “I didn’t know anybody when I started, but I met people on the team.”

Some students, 14 percent, said they wanted to participate in extracurricular activities but could not. Some cited homework as the reason; others said there were no safe parks or community centers to go to. (The latter does not explain why those students do not join in-school extracurricular programs.) Over a third of them offered no specific reason.

Family responsibilities may be another reason some who want to participate are unable to. Almost 30 percent of those surveyed said they had to supervise younger children after school. Domonique Williams, another Gage Park freshman, watches a 10-year-old sister and 12-year-old brother. Between fixing them meals and putting them to bed, she says she finds time to do homework.

Williams insists babysitting her siblings is not hard. However, another study finds that childcare helps teens mature but the additional responsibility may make it difficult for them to develop social connections outside of their families, and may increase their chances of living in poverty as adults.

Robert Goerge, the research fellow at Chapin Hall who led the survey, says schools need to do a better job of recruiting kids for clubs and sports. “[Kids] need to know what’s available. It’s not a case that, ‘If you build it they will come.’ You have to get them to come.”

About four years ago, Maggie Daley, wife of Mayor Richard M. Daley, created a local non-profit to team up with CPS schools and do just that. After School Matters links teens with clubs and sports at parks and libraries. Currently, 35 CPS high schools are affiliated with the initiative. After School Matters is looking to add 10 more schools in the next two years.

Improving the quality of and access to high school athletics was one of Arne Duncan’s early goals when he was hired as CEO in 2001. The high school athletic program is now undergoing “a complete overhaul” that aims to increase high school student participation in interscholastic sports by 25 percent next year, reports Calvin Davis, CPS sports director. The effort includes adding new teams, improving training for coaches and providing study plans for students whose grade point averages are too low to participate.

“Our big goal is to provide every child in the district with the chance to go to a quality after-school program,” Swanson adds. “But the choice when the school bell rings lies ultimately with the student.”

“It has to be something I want to do,” says Gage Park freshman Lawanda Coleman. “And what I want to do is sleep.”

To contact Dan Eder, call (312) 673-3884 or send an e-mail to eder@catalyst-chicago.org.