Partnership teaches kids leadership, cuts bullying

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published October 16, 2013

 Third-graders, from the left, Jleigh Saunders, Share Burkett and Emily Nance participate in a group team-building activity, sharing what they did over the weekend.

Third-graders, from the left, Jleigh Saunders, Share Burkett and Emily Nance participate in a group team-building activity, sharing what they did over the weekend.

Photo by Deb Jacques


KEEGO HARBOR — Promoting healthy minds, spirits and bodies, Roosevelt Elementary School has teamed with Playworks for a second year to provide organized activities that not only introduce nourishing lifestyles, but conflict resolution.

Playworks, formerly Sports for Kids, is a national nonprofit organization that provides safe and inclusive physical activity to low-income, urban schools. The program began in Michigan in July 2010, and 15 schools currently participate.

After attending a Playworks training open house, Roosevelt Elementary Principal Beth Feiten thought the program fit perfectly with the mission of the school, and the program was introduced in the 2012-13 school year.

“School is more than just educating the mind; it’s educating the heart and the soul, and I think that Playworks provides a structured opportunity to reach kids’ hearts and souls,” she said.

The entire program costs more than $60,000 per school, but because of national corporate sponsors, Roosevelt was only responsible for $27,000, and Feiten used Title I funds to pay for the first year, she said.

Two years ago, Roosevelt was converted from a targeted assistance Title I school, which meant funds could only be used on Title I students, to a school wide designation, which allows Feiten to use the funds on all students. Because Playworks involves every student, Feiten said she felt it an appropriate use of the funds.

This year, Roosevelt’s PTO split the costs with the Title I funding; however, PTO funds will not be sustainable for years to come.

The Playworks organization assigns a trained coach to coordinate full-time play and physical activity programming, and coach Bennie Szczepkowski was assigned to Roosevelt last year. According to Feiten, Szczepkowski is considered a rock star amongst the students.

“A lot of it is trying to create a healthy environment atmosphere. For example, with a lot of the games we play, we try to refrain from saying, ‘You’re out.’ It sounds negative, so instead we say, ‘Good job. Nice try,’” Szczepkowski said.

Playworks teaches students about the fun of the game instead of competition, and as for disputes and bullying, kids are taught to settle arguments through playing rock, paper, scissors, or “roshambo.”

The Playworks program contains five components ­­— organized games during recess, class game time, after-school leagues, before- or after-school supervised playtime, and leadership training — and the coaches train yearly on how to organize activities in a physically and emotionally safe atmosphere.

“The junior coach leadership program is my favorite part of our program because there is such a big mentoring part of it. To see how some of the children progress from start to finish, it’s very encouraging to me,” Szczepkowski said.

Teachers select 15 students from the fourth and fifth grades for the junior coach leadership program at the beginning of the year, and twice a week, Szczepkowski trains them after school, teaching skills like conflict-resolution and positive versus negative leadership. 

“A lot of times, I like speaking out and a little too much, so I learned how to control when I should talk and when I shouldn’t, and how I can be a leader from the back instead of always being in charge,” said veteran junior coach Elizabeth Brenner. Elizabeth is in the fifth grade and said that when she was a junior coach, she enjoyed helping the third- and fourth-grade students play foursquare during the 2012-13 school year.

In addition to conflict resolution, junior coaches also organize recess games once they have completed their training.

“(What’s important is) solving problems, and if something happens, you can probably solve it between the students. You don’t have to always go right to a teacher and make it a big problem,” fifth-grade student Nick Wiest said. Nick was selected for this year’s leadership program and looks forward to leading wall ball during his first recess.

Szczepkowski said turning play into another language allows those who may be shy or who don’t speak English to play games and participate in any way they can.

Playworks also teaches kids the importance of team building and bonding with others. In the last year, Feiten and Szczepkowski said, the number of arguments in the classroom and in the lunch room has declined, as well as the number of discipline slips issued after recess. Teachers have reported to Feiten that they are able to teach immediately instead of focusing on recess arguments.

“I’ve seen kids running to the water fountain in the hallway, and they get there at the same time and go, ‘OK, roshambo!’ and whoever wins, take their drink first, and it’s done.”

Playworks also gives the students unique opportunities, free of charge, through a partnership with the Detroit Lions. Last year, third- through fifth-grade students went to a Lions game and participated in a Playworks recess on Ford Field during halftime. Junior coaches are also rewarded for their work with tickets to games.

Because the PTO cannot fund the program yearly, they are working with the organization on marketing ideas to help with fundraisers and grants.

“It’s my hope to keep Playworks here for many years,” Feiten said. “The funding is always the challenge, so we’re hoping through some fundraising efforts that we can continue to positively impact the kids here.”