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Making a Difference

Public service programs help out Cambridge kids


With three claps of her hands, Shilpa M. Jain '98 silenced the 30 screaming children who just seconds earlier were running around the Currier House Dance Studio.

"If you can hear me, clap once," Jain began. "If you can hear me now, clap twice."

Jain and the five other Harvard students spread throughout the studio are teachers in CityStep, an organization that teaches dance-theater to Cambridge fifth-and sixth-graders.

CityStep is just one of many programs that link undergraduates with children from Cambridge public schools.

Harvard students volunteer to teach everything from literacy to conflict resolution. They also spend time developing relationships as mentors and as big siblings.

With the financial, intellectual and human resources of an institution like Harvard, one would assume that the University has a tremendous impact on the Cambridge community. Problems arise, however, in trying to measure that impact.

Relationships built between students and volunteers can't be measured by standardized test scores. But to Cambridge students, teachers, parents and Harvard volunteers alike, the relationship between the University and the Cambridge public schools benefits all participants.

Harvard student volunteers provide tangible benefits to public school students, says Vicki Solomon, director of elementary placement at Cambridge School Volunteers Inc. (CSV).

"Harvard volunteers play a very important part of our overall program," Solomon says. "Teachers come to rely on them for support and for giving individual attention to students."

CSV is the clearinghouse for volunteers in Cambridge public schools, including Cambridge citizens and students from MIT and other area colleges.

About a third of the 1,000 volunteers are from Harvard. The majority of Harvard students volunteer through programs like ExperiMentors and the House And Neighborhood Development Program (HAND).

A Helping HAND

"One of HAND's primary goals is to foster better relationships with the neighborhood, and it does so by doing public service in Cambridge schools," says Kevin C. Chien '98, the Pforzheimer House HAND coordinator.

HAND provides volunteers at various elementary schools in Cambridge. Each House is partnered with an area of Cambridge and an elementary school within that neighborhood.

Twelve tutors from Pforzheimer volunteer at the M.E. Fitzgerald Elementary School's After-School Learning Center.

On Tuesday and Wednesdays, Pforzheimer residents help kids with math and English homework. They also teach interactive lessons in small groups of two to four students.

"Tutors can make a significant impact even by helping with just one assignment," Chien says.

HAND's One-shot Program brings neighborhood kids together with Harvard students for a one-time community service event.

"One-shots are good because they give students who can't promise a long-term commitment an opportunity to do community service," says Grace M. Lee '99, HAND's One-Shot coordinator at Pforzheimer House.

For Halloween, Pforzheimer HAND staged a costume party and a trick-or-treat tour through the house. About 35 children, 20 from the Fitzgerald After-School Program, were dressed in costume by one-shot volunteers and taken trick-or-treating around the house.

"It's a safe way to spend Halloween and a great chance for the kids to see beyond their homes and get a glimpse of college," Lee says.

"It's also good to see how many people in the House were willing to give up their time, especially on a Friday afternoon."

Uprooting Seeds of Conflict

Peace Games, rather than focusing on academics, is determined to change America's culture of violence one school at a time, says executive director Eric Dawson '96.

Started at Harvard in 1992, Peace Games is now an independent non-profit organization with more than 300 college volunteers, 80 of them Harvard students.

About 20 of them teach in nine classes at the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Cambridge. From first grade to eighth grade, students at King are taught conflict resolution and violence prevention.

Armed with skits and arts and crafts, three Peace Games teachers entered a second-grade classroom ready to train children in conflict resolution.

The three teachers prepared a skit in which an argument arose after an errant rollerblader ran over a sunbather.

The 12 students learned to stop fighting (arms extended, palms facing outwards), think about the situation (forefingers at temples), listen to the other person (fingers pointing to ears) and talk over the problem (open and close fingers and thumb).

After playing out the skit with various endings-an argument and a compromise--the teachers broke the class into small groups.

Judy Hung '99, who is also the treasurer of the Phillips Brooks House Association, sat down with Geralda Jean and Miriam R. Zefnaf, ages 7 and 8, on Friday afternoon to talk about applying the new four-step method.

Zefnaf drew a picture of her brother putting toothpaste in her eye.

"I told my mom and she gave me a facecloth to wipe it off," Zefnaf says.

"When someone does something by accident they didn't mean it so you shouldn't really feel to mad."

Satisfaction, Hung says, comes from helping kids learn about peace.

"Our kids are always excited about Peace Games and it's wonderful to teach them about compliments and putdowns and how to solve situations when they're mad or angry," Hung says.

King School Coordinator Janel A. Moore '00 sees how Peace Games works--not just in one class but also how it can change the entire school culture

"Peace Games teaches kids that there are alternatives to violence and it permeates through the school," Moore says.

"The younger kids like playing the games, but they remember how to talk about violence and peace. The older kids might think it's a bit corny in the beginning. But now when arguments erupt, they know how to discipline themselves."

Making a difference, no matter how small, is all that matters to Moore.

"If I can just get one person to think about [non-violent] options, I'll feel like I've done something. That's enough for me," she says.

Dancing and Self-Esteem

Every spring, about 150 Cambridge fifth and sixth graders put on costumes, stride onstage and perform an elaborate dance musical.

The students spend an entire year learning the dance through CityStep, a group of 28 Harvard teachers and five directors who visit three elementary schools and run two after-school programs.

CityStep is unconventional in its approach to helping kids.

Dance can be an important medium for building self-esteem, says CityStep director Stephanie Firos '98.

"Kids are often judged by teachers and parents by how well they do in school," Firos says. "A child's self-esteem may suffer if he's not that great at school.

"Dancing is something everyone can do. People have different styles, and every style is good. CityStep has the unique ability to reach different kinds of kids, even those who don't do well in school can really excel."

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