- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

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.

“The kids will vote with their feet. They’ll show up if they like it,” says Brodrick Clarke, site director at Lincoln Middle School for Project My Time.

Project My Time aims to offer a coordinated and systemwide after-school program that can be tracked and monitored for improvement, Ms. Sharma-Holt says.

A coordinated system takes the chance out of quality based on where students live or other factors, says Greg Roberts, president and CEO of the trust.

“We’re going to bring the best sources that the community can offer,” Mr. Roberts says.

Middle-school students participating in Project My Time are required to do one hour of homework, or if they do not have any, to engage in academic activities such as academic computer games or reading time. The rest of the afternoon is spent in their choice of two enrichment activities in art, music, dance, theater, sports or other recreation. The activities include instructions and lessons, along with life skills in leadership, teamwork, self-discipline, problem-solving, critical thinking, time-management, literacy and communication.

“I wanted to get ahead,” says Shirah Moffatt-Darko, a fifth-grader at Lincoln Middle School, about participating in the Higher Achievement Program, an academic enrichment and high-school-preparatory program for middle-school students. “When teachers are teaching something, instead of having to struggle with it, I know it immediately because I learned it in Higher Achievement.”

Students in the Higher Achievement Program, which has been in the District for more than 30 years, are expected to attend three days each week (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday) and six weeks in the summer, adding another 600 hours of academics to their school year, says Katherine Roboff, center director of the Higher Achievement Program at Lincoln Middle School. The program includes homework help and extra-curricular activities, such as acting, singing and visual arts, along with a curriculum in math, literature and technology, she says.

“We really try to challenge our students. We have very high standards and we do everything we can to support them to meet those standards,” Ms. Roboff says.

Lincoln Middle School’s other after-school offerings include playwriting, creative writing, debate, music, soccer and baseball. The activities are held in the school building in the classrooms and cafeteria and at nearby facilities.

Sixty-five students from Lincoln Middle School are participating in Project My Time. Students are not required to attend the school to participate, but must be District residents and attend two days a week.

“As long as we have the space to accommodate them, we’ll accommodate them,” Mr. Clarke says.

The initiative expects to eventually have 200 students from each school participating in the program.

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