Kung fu, the elderly aid pupils

March 13, 1995|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Instead of punishing students for poor behavior and failing grades, officials at St. Johns Lane Elementary School are using senior citizens and free kung fu lessons to encourage better academic performance.

The approach seems to work. Parents, teachers and students at the Ellicott City school say the program has changed students' attitudes toward school, increased parent involvement and reduced discipline problems in the classroom.

"The change in kids is they want to be here," said Vice Principal Darlene Fila. "The kids are excited about school. We're seeing fewer behavior problems."

The activities are part of a larger parent outreach program that initially was funded by a $9,000 United Way grant in 1993.

In r the program, which targets poor Ellicott City families, parents learn skills to deal with their children and their lives while youngsters receive help in math, reading and writing. With the help of private donations and grants, the school last year also provided a breakfast cruise at the Inner Harbor and sent 20 children to a YMCA summer camp.

"We're trying to get as many people involved with our kids as possible," Ms. Fila said.

St. Johns Lane has about 840 students. Each of the program's 10 activities serves about 30 to 50 students, with some students participating in more than one activity. In addition to reading and kung fu, activities have included a mentor program with local police and business people.

The programs are open to all students, but school officials concentrate on those who get poor grades, live in low-income neighborhoods or who need help in some way.

An eight-week martial arts course is taught at the school by instructors from the World Kung Fu Training and Fitness Center in Ellicott City. The center waived the $65 program fee and gave free uniforms to about 16 children who could not afford the lessons and who participated in the school's free lunch program.

Martial arts instructors say the 30 children in the class learn self-defense skills, discipline and respect.

"In here, we give children another look at values," said Glen Parton, one of two instructors of the course. "This gives them a fighting chance at knowing right from wrong."

During a recent hourlong kung fu class, about 30 students practiced various moves, including kicking a board in half. Rewards and punishments were clearly defined. For those who violated classroom rules, push-ups were in order. For those who had passed a math test or done a good deed, a colored stripe was added to their martial arts belt.

Chelsea Saunders, 10, already sported a row of stripes on her belt. She earned her most recent stripe because of praise she received from her principal and teacher. The fifth-grader said the class has taught her responsibility.

"I've learned to stay on task," Chelsea said. "Not to leave things behind when you have something to do."

In the reading program, 12 senior citizens from Columbia's Vantage House are matched with one or two students in kindergarten through second grade whose reading skills are below grade level. About 30 children participate.

The program benefits both children and senior citizens, school officials said. Children receive extra attention while learning to read.

"They really look forward [to visits from the senior citizens]," said teacher Marilyn Armstrong. "It raises their self-esteem, too."

And the senior citizens -- who include a former homemaker, a former journalist and a former medical professor -- say the program gives them a chance to use professional and life skills to help a new generation.

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