Walk into the cafeteria at PS 9 on West 84th Street around 2:30 p.m. and you can hear the buzz and excitement. The K-5 children have spent an entire day in their classes and are now ready to let off some steam in the Arts and Athletics afterschool program. You cannot help but notice the attentive and caring afterschool program instructors who welcome their charges with open arms and get them settled before they disperse into their activities.
The city’s educational system has been reeling over the past two years. Closed schools, remote learning, and pre-vaccine precautions have created a maelstrom of issues that have affected its public school students. Many have fallen further behind in basic and reading and math skills, and the social isolation they’ve experienced has caused an increase in anxiety and mental health issues according to many experts.
While the focus has been on the in-school academic impact of the pandemic, the re-opening of the schools has also highlighted the importance of afterschool time where kids can build upon the academics skills they learn during the day, be exposed to activities they would not normally venture into and simply have fun in a relaxed atmosphere.
Neil Fitzgerald is the force behind Arts and Athletics. Fitzgerald, a world-class high school track star growing up in California with an Ivy League degree, credits his high school running coach and mentor with instilling in him the importance of hard work and excellence. He brings these qualities to the leadership of Arts and Athletics. He landed in New York City over 20 years ago to study education at Teacher’s College. He had been teaching Latin at IS 54 on West 108th Street when a colleague at the school posed the idea of his coaching a running club at PS 9.
“My friend knew I liked to run and asked if I could take over coaching his club since he was moving out of the city,” Fitzgerald related. “There was a small afterschool program called Renaissance at PS 9, which sponsored the running club, and I quickly realized they also needed help with data collection and the general organization of the program.”
Sports, Chess and Musical Theater
It was from there that Fitzgerald developed his own brand of afterschool care. The program is now located in four West Side elementary schools – PS 9, PS 166, PS 334 and PS 452 – and provides critical out of school time learning for over 900 children. Fees are collected on a sliding scale and vary according to the number of days a child is in the program. Arts and Athletics offers a wide range of activities from a host of different sports to chess, fencing, computer classes, art workshops, creative writing and a very popular musical theater program.
“Kids have real choices about what they want to specialize in,” Fitzgerald said. “Our aim is to challenge kids. They can select their own activities and are encouraged to try out new things where they can expand their interest and reinforce the learning takes place during the school day.”
Reis Powell is a spirited fourth grader who was decked out in his Lionel Messi jersey. He has been attending Arts and Athletics since kindergarten and never misses a day. He was busy playing a board game when I ventured over to introduce myself. I mentioned to him that he seems like a real soccer fan and wondered whether he was following the World Cup. “I like Argentina,” he said. “I saw them beat Australia 2-1. Soccer and kickball are my favorite things to do here. The other day we played an intense soccer game and I scored three goals and had an assist,” he enthusiastically shared.
Commitment of the Staff
The impact of the afterschool program reaches beyond the close of the school day. The work in the classroom and the participation in afterschool activities are interconnected. Kate Witzke was at PS 9 for eighteen years – eleven as assistant principal and seven as principal – and a real champion of Arts and Athletics. “Part of the reason the program worked so well was that Neil hired a lot of community members who were in the school during the day,” she said. “We had a similar approach to how to deal with children. There might be a child who was struggling socially and, together, we would figure out what was best for that child. Arts and Athletics became integral to our success as a school.”
One of the impressive aspects of the program is the skill and commitment of the staff. There are seven full-time staff members and a slew of part-time specialists who lead the workshops and classes. Many are recent college graduates or still in school, and have a career interest in working with children. Others work in the school during the day but dedicate their time afterschool hours to help in the program.
As a child, Lisa Baccus would travel from the Bronx to participate in chess tournaments at PS 9. She grew into an avid player and now runs the chess program that spans all four sites and has over 150 active students. “There is a healthy interest in chess throughout Arts and Athletics,” Baccus said. “Students will be doing their homework and just pick up a chessboard and play. For those who want to advance their skill, we run competitive tournaments and have even sent kids to national competitions.”
Fitzgerald is realistic about the future of programs such as Arts and Athletics. “I’m not sure if a program such as ours is really scalable given the different cultures, leadership styles and on the ground challenges of each school. They are all so different,” he said. “If done well, an afterschool program can do amazing things for a school. It can introduce activities that children aren’t exposed to during the school day, invite children to choose what they want to learn and pursue, and cultivate a staff of skilled and enthusiastic educators. But all of that requires a firm foundation. Witnessing the joy of the kids is the reward for a lot of painstaking work.”
For more information about Arts and Athletics visit: https://artsandathletics.org/afterschool/
“Our aim is to challenge kids. They can select their own activities and are encouraged to try out new things.” Neil Fitzgerald of Arts and Athletics