In schools across America, young children spend recess and lunch in a schoolyard enclosed by barbed wire, littered with broken glass, and dominated by the biggest, toughest kids. Decades of disinvestment in American public schools have eroded the capacity of schools in low-income neighborhoods to provide supervised recreation, physical education, and structured afterschool activities. Jill Vialet’s Sports4Kids provides these schools with a comprehensive, affordable sports and recreation program that leverages community resources to meet the needs of disadvantaged children.
The New Idea
Jill founded Sports4Kids as a comprehensive program to create safe and inclusive environments for play and physical activity both within and beyond the school day. Through Sports4Kids, she collaborates with school staff to orchestrate lunchtime and recess activities and to reintroduce physical education into the classroom. She develops and coordinates after school programs that include homework help, healthy snacks, and organized sports and games. Finally, Sports4Kids runs inclusive interscholastic sports leagues and uses sports to increase family and community involvement in schools.
Sports4Kids helps schools break free of the false tension between physical health and academic achievement; its programs drive significant progress in both areas. The program benefits all populations in the school: students come to classes with more energy and excitement; administrators cut down on discipline problems; and teachers learn how to meet state-mandated standards for physical education while having fun with their students. It is little surprise, then, that principals and teachers cite Sports4Kids as one of the most indispensable programs in their schools. Jill uses their enthusiasm to spur her program’s expansion to cities across the country.
Sharp increases in childhood obesity and Type II diabetes in the United States demonstrate the serious health impacts of reduced physical education and activity. Health problems are particularly prevalent in low-income areas, where concerned parents often keep their children inside rather than risk exposing them to crime. At home, video games and television more often replace physical activities as sources of entertainment. At school, budget cuts and an overwhelming emphasis on test scores have severely decreased support for “non-academic extras” like sports and afterschool programs.
A Carnegie Corporation report confirmed that youth involved in organized physical activities fare better than their peers both academically and interpersonally. Schools across the country have ignored similar reports for decades, cutting back on physical activities in the name of academic achievement. Exemplifying a trend repeated in communities across the country, 44 percent of Oakland fifth graders failed more than half the fitness standards on the 2001 California Physical Fitness Test. Despite the National Association for Sport and Physical Education’s recommendation that elementary school children receive a minimum of 150 minutes per week of instruction in physical education, only eight percent of elementary schools provide that amount. In California, the average is just 37 minutes per week.
The lack of physical activity in and around schools is due partly to a lack of appropriate infrastructure. Due to budget cutbacks, schoolyards in low-income areas often have no adult supervision and little or no playground equipment. Schoolyards without supervised recess, lunch time, and afterschool activities have become breeding grounds for bullying, fights, and illegal activity; 75 percent of incidents requiring suspension or disciplinary action in today’s schools occur in the schoolyard. One principal named the schoolyard as the single most destructive element in the school environment.
Attempts to address the lack of organized physical activities for low-income public school children include limited in-school physical education (P.E.) led primarily by classroom teachers and afterschool offerings driven by volunteers. Both activities are led by individuals with little training. School and community recreation programs provide weekend basketball and other competitive sports but rarely address problems that are not related to athletics. These programs emphasize competition over inclusion, and provide few opportunities for girls and less athletically oriented children to participate.
Finally, existing school and community sports and recreation efforts operate completely independently, reinforcing the widening gap between schools and communities. Today, teachers’ salaries are tied to improvement in test scores; daily schedules and even the entire school year have been reorganized around test preparation. As scores remain stagnant, administrators focus even more energy toward testing, and school staff become increasingly defensive and overworked, losing their ability to sponsor athletic programs or nurture partnerships with family and community.
Jill developed the Sports4Kids program to build opportunities for healthy living into all spheres of school life. She works with teachers to design curriculum and activities that bring physical education back into the classroom. School administrators consult with her trainers to rework plans for recess and lunch. And to keep the kids healthy even after school ends, she has created afterschool programs and interscholastic sports leagues that value personal growth and academic success just as much as competition. Sports4Kids also runs a Junior Coaches leadership program for fourth-and fifth-grade students, recruiting committed older students to mentor and support the youngest students in the program.
Jill pushes Sports4Kids beyond the schoolyard, engaging parents, neighbors, and corporate volunteers as leaders and supporters of its interscholastic sports leagues and youth development training programs. To spread their methods and insight even farther, Sports4Kids offers customized staff trainings to schools, nonprofit organizations, and other recreation programs. To date, Sports4Kids has trained approximately 1,000 teachers and 4,000 community members.
A more intensive version of the training has produced more than 125 site coordinators, professionals who integrate and administer each school’s Sports4Kids programs. Jill trains her site coordinators not only to do their jobs well, but to become leaders in the youth development field. Trainees learn to run a wide variety of games, sports, and in-class physical activities; they also learn techniques in group management, violence prevention, and conflict resolution. To broaden the reach of her trainings, Jill is exploring partnerships with teacher credential programs and community service departments at high schools and colleges.
The primary clients of Sports4Kids are school principals looking to bring physical activity and play back into the lives of their students and at the same time cut down on discipline problems. Jill positions Sports4Kids as an affordable entry to these principals’ stressed budgets, offering its comprehensive program for about US$20,000 per year. Jill keeps costs low by offering jobs to new employment seekers in the labor market, some subsidized by government programs, as well as a wide array of community volunteers.
Jill holds the same high standards of a respect among her staff as for the youth they serve. Accordingly, competition for site coordinator positions is steep, with roughly fifteen candidates applying for each opening. By promoting from within, Jill has developed an experienced team of trainers and supervisors to maintain quality as the program expands. Through training, on-site experience, and career development, the Sports4Kids youth workers have established Jill’s model locally and are now prepared to take it to communities across the country.
As the Sports4Kids network spreads, it will be supported by a rigorous set of evaluations identifing the strengths and weaknesses of the program and recommending strategies for change. Third-party studies in the past have documented significant improvements in safety, bonding, and conflict resolution among students in the program. A future study will compare and analyze programs at four schools: three schools with Sports4Kids programs, two new and one already established; and one school without Sports4Kids. The results of this analysis will drive program refinements to prepare the program to spread to new schools in cities across the United States.
Since Jill started Sports4Kids with two schools in 1996, the program has spread like wildfire, reaching 68 schools in the Bay Area alone and spreading to a dozen cities across the country. In 2005, a team of experienced trainers established programs at five schools in Boston, the latest city to join the Sports4Kids network.
Jill developed a love for sports in her early school years. As a young girl in the dawn of Title IX, she was entitled to play any sport, but she always preferred the sports that boys thought only they could play. She remembers with great fondness a recreation worker named Clarence at her local playground, who made sure she was always included in the sports of her choice. Jill continued to play sports in high school, becoming a state champion in track. Through sports she learned how to manage a team and gained insights about gender equity and competition that would influence many of her life choices.
As she went on to college, Jill became immediately immersed in public service and political advocacy. In her time at Harvard, she was student body president, co-founded the group Students Against Racism, and spent a summer in Peru with Amigos de las Americas. Jill took her commitment to service a step further after college, taking a job with Campfire Boys and Girls in Alaska. She went from village to village teaching survival swimming skills and art to 40 children from 2 to 17 years old. As a complete outsider with little support, Jill had to create a program from scratch; she had no choice but to innovate.
In 1988, Jill cofounded the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) in Oakland to help families and communities celebrate the creativity of young people. Through the work with the museum, she brought artists to a hospital to work with pediatric patients, and convinced the hospital to display the children’s art throughout its wards. During MOCHA’s start-up period, Jill also worked for the East Bay Conservation Corps as director of Project Yes, an environmental education program for 200 middle school children in four schools. The museum grew quickly, developing an “artists in residency” program in public schools and serving 18,000 children over the course of nine years. Principals were so impressed with Jill’s work that they approached her to solve their single biggest problem: the schoolyard. At their request, Jill worked for months to adapt the MOCHA model to physical health, and founded Sports4Kids in 1996.