THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Ten-year-old Jerry Harrison wants to go to college and study math.
Eighth grader Shayla Gilmer would like to attend Harvard and become a lawyer.
Chris Amato, president of the after-school program Kids Unlimited, is determined to see those dreams become reality.
For four years, Mr. Amato and a crew of 80 educators and volunteers have worked with central-city children such as Jerry and Shayla at grade schools in Toledo. There, they assist students who often are struggling academically because of problems related to poverty, family turmoil, or lack of parental support at home.
The program - which runs for about three to four hours after each school day - provides homework help, tutoring in math and language arts, and development of positive behaviors, such as respect for others and self-discipline through role-playing and games.
Statistics compiled by Kids Unlimited show the program has made a big impact on student performance at school, with participating children scoring significantly higher on state exams than their peers.
"I've seen nothing turn into something. I've seen children with behavior issues, academic issues, make a complete turn for the better," said program director Ernest Martin, who calls himself the Kids Unlimited "patriarch" because of his role as chief disciplinarian. "I've seen seeds being planted in young people's lives … and I've seen the seeds growing."
One of those sprouting seeds is Jerry, a fifth grader, at Northpointe Academy who just started his second year with Kids Unlimited. His tutor, Chantel Clariett, said when he began the program, he had trouble sitting through class, never finished his homework, and was easily provoked into acting aggressively.
Now, through individualized attention and strict behavior coaching at Kids Unlimited, Jerry gets his work done and is no longer quick to jump into a fight, Ms. Clariett said. The turnaround has helped his grades.
"I'm extremely proud of him because he's really putting forth that effort," said Ms. Clariett, who on a recent afternoon was working with Jerry and six other children on spelling, reading, and math in a classroom at Northpointe. "You can just see him maturing as a young man."
Jerry, who admitted he wasn't working very hard at school before he joined Kids Unlimited, said participating in the program has taught him about being successful.
"I'm getting all A's for my homework," he said proudly. "I want to go on to eighth grade. I want to pass all my grades."
Founded by Mr. Amato, a former teacher and sports coach, and Lisa Gathard, a one-time advisory board member for Central City Ministries of Toledo, Kids Unlimited runs programs at five charter and Catholic schools in Toledo.
The schools are Clay Avenue Community School, Madison Avenue School of Arts, Northpointe Academy, Queen of Apostles School, and Rosary Cathedral School. About 400 children in kindergarten through eighth grade participate in the program over the course of a year, which includes a summer school.
The program is funded mainly through private donations and grants, although it recently received $700,000 from the Ohio Department of Education to be spread over the next five years. Parents contribute $20 a month, and scholarships are available for those families that need help.
Kids Unlimited hires 30 "team leaders," often college or university students, and trains them to work with the children. Another 50 community members volunteer as tutors for about an hour and a half each week.
Mr. Amato said he and Ms. Gathard were inspired to set up Kids Unlimited because of what they saw as a lack of quality, affordable after-school programs in central-city schools. They said they believed these schools were in dire need of such programs because statistics show disproportionately high dropout rates among inner-city youth, particularly among African-American and Hispanic students.
For example, 18 percent of black students and 23 percent of Hispanic students in Toledo drop out of high school, a higher number than the 13 percent of white youngsters, according to state figures.
That trend plays out across the nation, with black or Hispanic teenagers aged 16 to 19 much more likely than their white peers to be neither working nor attending school.
The discrepancies are linked to poverty and to family situations in which parents are absent or lack the time, skills, or knowledge to help their children succeed with their education, Mr. Amato said. Those disadvantages start early, and without intervention, will worsen as the child grows.
"Their preparation has been delayed. They haven't been read to, they don't have books at home. Their skills just aren't on a par with children that have had that happening at home," Mr. Amato said. "Many of the children by the time they reach the midyear of grade school are often two or three years behind in their language and math skills."
For that reason, the goal of Kids Unlimited is to reach at-risk children as early as possible, starting in kindergarten. Mr. Amato said that has been a key tenet of successful after-school programs throughout the country.
The program is also set up to ensure kids attend on a daily basis, or as close to it as possible, because consistent attendance is essential if a child is to succeed, Mr. Amato explained.
Classes are held at the child's own school, which means students have fewer excuses not to show up. When they register for the program, children and parents are asked to sign a contract agreeing to participate fully. .
Having Kids Unlimited in the schools offers another advantage: It allows tutors to communicate with school teachers to find out how children are doing in class and better monitor problems or signs of progress.
Julie McLaughlin, principal at Clay Avenue Community School, said the Kids Unlimited approach is working for her students. She said 96 percent of the children at her school live in poverty, and many come to class distracted by challenges they face at home. Others come to Clay Avenue from other schools where they have fallen behind, she said.
Ms. McLaughlin said Kids Unlimited, in its third year at the school, has helped Clay Avenue jump from an "academic emergency" rating two years ago to "continuous improvement" last year.
"I've seen some amazing things," Ms. McLaughlin said, citing staff consistency at Kids Unlimited and a large number of male tutors among the reasons students respond well to the program. "I don't think you can find anything else like it in Toledo."
In addition to its focus on academic development, Kids Unlimited puts a big emphasis on turning around behavior problems, which Mr. Martin says are as much the result of academic difficulties as they are the cause of them. He said children who are behind in school are more likely to behave badly in class to cover up the fact that they don't understand.
"If a child has a negative attitude, either they don't know or they have a problem knowing," Mr. Martin said. "Attitude dictates everything."
Rather than focusing on negative attitudes, Mr. Martin said staff members work to enforce good behavior by rewarding students with points every time they act appropriately. The points are then exchanged for prizes at the end of the year, which can be anything from a new bicycle to an MP3 player.
Visiting speakers from the community give students a perspective on how people achieve success in life and what it takes to reach the top. Speakers have included Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, law enforcement personnel, and other professionals. During the summer, children go on field trips to places they might not be exposed to, such as the University of Toledo, the Lucas County Courthouse, or the Toledo Museum of Art, Mr. Martin said.
Because Kids Unlimited is a relatively new program, participants aren't old enough yet to have completed high school or moved onto college, which program officials say is the ultimate goal. However, reports on the students' performance in school indicate that Kids Unlimited's efforts are having an effect.
At Englewood Peace Academy, where Kids Unlimited held sessions until last year when the school closed, third graders participating in the program averaged 29 points higher than their peers in the reading and math sections of the Ohio Achievement Test, according to a report compiled by Kids Unlimited. The children also scored several points above the state average.
At Madison Avenue School of Arts, third graders in Kids Unlimited showed an average increase of 20 points on their OAT reading tests from the fall of 2008 to the spring of 2009, with each child ranked either proficient or accelerated, the report said.
But perhaps the best indication of the programs' success comes from the kids themselves. Shayla, the eighth grader who wants to be a lawyer, said she likes going to Kids Unlimited because it's fun, she gets help with her homework, and she learns about respecting others.
"Last year, I had an attitude problem with all my teachers," Shayla said. Kids Unlimited "taught me just to talk to them if I have a problem."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: