by Merrik Bush
A kinesiology professor scores one for underserved youth in the name of social justice
A group of children gather after school on the worn blacktop, waiting to shoot some hoops. In the distance, a motorcycle tears circles through the unkempt playground. Sometimes, though not today, gunshots echo across campus. In all ways but one, it's an average day at Malcolm X Academy, an inner-city elementary school situated in one of San Francisco's most crime-plagued and impoverished neighborhoods.
"Okay guys, what are some of the skills we're going to focus on today?" asks Associate Professor of Kinesiology David Walsh. His presence here among this group of 9 to 11-year-olds is more than just an extension of his Urban Youth Development Project. It's also a case study in Walsh's commitment to social justice -- despite tough odds. The children he works with are the product of rough urban environments that are short on role models, healthy home lives and goodwill. They are disruptive, volatile, and academically challenged, lacking the structure and support of more advantaged children.
In other words, they are perfect for Walsh's after-school program. His goal: to help them score a slam-dunk turnaround in their troubled lives.
With a coach's enthusiasm, Walsh eyes the group -- 11 boys and two girls, all minorities -- and their expressions run the gamut from surly to anxious. His affable demeanor hides a swift mind, one that's busy calculating ways to help the children address their behavioral issues in a positive way. The skills he's teaching aren't jump shots or tricky passing maneuvers; they are the harder-won skills of respect, teamwork, personal responsibility and leadership.
For more than 15 years, Walsh has been successfully empowering children to transfer the life skills they learn on the court to other arenas of their lives -- like school, home and the streets -- using a sports-based youth development model called Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR).
"I pride myself on working with kids who don't have the same opportunities as kids who come from middle to upper class families," explains Walsh, whose work with underserved youth earned him a distinguished social justice award last year from the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. "They have to work so much harder than the average kid to make it in the world. It's my way of leveling the playing field."
At the heart of the TPSR model is the notion that children are capable of being leaders, given the chance. Life skills are integrated into sports -- from basketball to martial arts -- instead of taught separately. The concept of playing as a team, for example, is extrapolated to the outside world. How can you be a team player in class or at home, a coach might ask? During three stages, the program evolves from being largely coach -- directed to a point, several months later, where the children take turns directing the exercises. Journals, worksheets and group discussions provide opportunities for both the children and the coach to discuss and evaluate how well they're doing. A coach might say, "Tell me some ways you used teamwork in the classroom this week," or "Last week, I noticed some trash talk. Let's watch our tempers today." At the end of practice, the coach might ask how well the children respected each other. Using the thumbs-up or down gesture, children will self-evaluate, which is just one small way, says Walsh, that the program fosters a sense of personal responsibility.
"From day one I'll ask, ‘What does respect mean to you?'" says Walsh, who joined SF State in 2003. "It's more powerful to get it in their words."
Walsh has lost count of the number of children whose attitudes; grades and personal lives have significantly improved because of the program. He just knows it works.
Despite the growing body of evidence that shows the efficacy of TPSR, to which Walsh has contributed significant research, the model remains in the margins of physical education programs. As a new sub-discipline, it suffers from a lack of available degree programs. For example, in the entire 23-campus CSU system, SF State is the only one to offer a master's degree in physical activity-based urban youth development. Like Walsh, most of the nation's TPSR-trained phys-ed professors earned their doctorates from the University of Illinois, Chicago, studying under Don Hellison, who, along with being Walsh's mentor, literally wrote the book on the TPSR approach.
"Dave's approach to teaching and studying physical education is different from any other PE teacher-training program in the CSU," says Kinesiology Department Chair Marialice Kern, who adds that incorporating a social justice component into the department was no accident.
Walsh was hired as part of the University's move to bring "new line" faculty positions -- those with a fresh or innovative take on their disciplines -- into its programs. Former Kinesiology Chair Susan Higgins knew of Hellison's work and proposed the position to President Corrigan. The rest, as they say, is history.
Picking up where Higgins left off, Kern encourages others in her department to foster a social justice component in their work. For example, faculty member Maria Veri uses her background in sociocultural sport studies to help NGOs bring soccer programs to underserved women in Afghanistan. And along with professors Susan Zieff and Claudia Guedes, she studies racial and gender equality in sports through a collaborative research group.
For Walsh, it's also about training the next generation, and he's scored big in this arena. Graduate student Mike Buckle (see sidebar) turned a Latino street gang of academic failures into a league-winning soccer team with improved GPAs. Past and present students now run half a dozen TPSR-based programs at Bay Area youth agencies. Undergrads regularly enroll in his community-service class that runs out of inner-city YMCAs.
"Why not train future physical education teachers with an eye toward helping underserved children apply what they learn on the field or court to everyday life?" says Walsh.
Four weeks into the Malcolm X Academy program and Walsh's mettle has never been more tested. He sorely needs a breakthrough. Spitting, cussing and in-court brawls have predominated, but he knows it's just a matter of time before he wins the group's trust. When that door opens, the game is on.
The group sputters. Nobody wants to make the first move. Finally, a boy, who Walsh senses has natural leader-ship skills hiding under a don't-mess-with-me facade, raises his hand.
"Respect," he says, without irony. "To get it, we have to give it first."
The door opens. The game is on.
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