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Bringing New Dimensions to Young Lives

Health: As school P.E. courses falter, a few adults are leading alternative programs. For kids, it can mean increased fitness, a boost in confidence and better grades.

June 27, 1996|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's an over-told urban story, tired as the walls of this reconverted space that shares a sidewalk with a crack house and incognito gang digs--outside of which gunfire is sometimes traded.

This MacArthur Park community isn't a configuration of streets where you're likely to find jillions of kids biking, roller-blading, back-talking through a pounding game of pickup basketball.

The neighboring patches of green--MacArthur and Lafayette--are well-known hangouts for dealers, gangbangers, prostitutes and other assorted cautionary visions.

It was with those temptations in mind that L.A. Fit for Kids opened its doors on this corner, on this otherwise dry-of-resources stretch of 7th Street near Coronado Street. Founded by Camille Harris in response to 1992's civil unrest, this nonprofit steps in where school administrations no longer can.

"We're trying to be a safe haven," says Naomi Nigh, L.A. Fit's volunteer director. "We're trying to improve the way the kids live."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday July 1, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Youth fitness--Normandie Nigh is the volunteer director for the nonprofit L.A. Fit for Kids. Her name was misspelled in a June 27 article.

Nigh is one of a cadre of enterprising adults leading local alternative physical education programs. Adults who have seen the holes in public school fitness education grow so wide there is no way to simply patch the weave. Instead, the answer has been to construct basketball clinics, ad hoc soccer tourneys and the like with private funds.

Nigh's duties extend far beyond the perimeter of any desk. In high-tops and unitard, she lugs her boomboxes between Commonwealth Elementary and Virgil Middle School, when she's not recruiting student coaches at nearby Belmont High School.

In adopting the ideology of the Physical Education Framework for California Public Schools, Nigh says, "We try to focus on skills rather than competition."

She and her student coaching staff of 10 parcel out duties. Some converge on Commonwealth Elementary School, teaching stretching exercises during class hours, then, after school, offering such activities as soccer and flag football, as well as academic tutoring and arts and crafts.

At the middle-school level, the offerings are more along the lines of an after-school arts / fitness collective: hip-hop dance and step classes complement a team-building and leadership training program.

"Instead of kids going home and smoking and stuff like that," says Francesca Bailey, a Virgil Middle School eighth-grader, "they come here and experience new things."

Otherwise, says Tiffany Austin, 12 1/2, "I would just go to the mall, or the park and kick it with my friends."

*

Each school has a budget of $40,000, but funds come sporadically. Twenty-five hundred from Arco here, $5,000 from Prudential there. "We've yet to get a real large grant," says Nigh, who crunches numbers and worries about the future. "The community loves us. So do the parents. They want us to come back, but I think they think that it magically appears out of nowhere. I'm at the point right now where I don't know how we'll continue. We get bits and pieces, but it barely covers our expenses."

Still, Nigh remains hopeful: "I look at it as there are no problems--only solutions."

Pressed along the side of a hill, near the edge of the ocean, Temescal Canyon High School hides behind a chain-link fence, just down the incline from its tony kin, Palisades High. Temescal is a continuation school, where structured P.E. is an afterthought.

School Principal Eric Spears' answer seven years ago was to develop a program that would work outside the formal structure of, yet in conjunction with, the schools. He and two teachers founded Students Run L.A. in 1989, after a gonzo stunt of running the L.A. Marathon, as a way to inspire and involve kids--especially those difficult to reach.

"What in September looks like, no, is, an impossible task," Spears says, "can be achieved."

The self-competitive program, open to kids 14 to 18 countywide, is structured so that students from the same neighborhoods, about 1,500 in all, train in small groups. The goal is not to create elite runners but to offer "a positive experience that is school-based and that makes school more relevant."

Above all, it's an innovative introduction to a physical lifestyle, Spears explains. "P.E. is often not a real exciting part of the program for them. With 75 people in class, they don't get a lot of instruction."

Here, progress is closely monitored by marathon leaders--a teacher, coach, runner or committed adult--who take them through pacing, diet, health, stretching and injury prevention. Their body becomes a lab. The subject of experiment.

"Students say to us, 'If I can run this marathon, I can do anything.' Graduation isn't a problem," Spears explains. "Because you learn how to put in the time up front."

Attendance rates go up, so do grades and confidence. Ninety percent of the continuation students who participate end up graduating.

But it doesn't happen for free. Spears puts the tab at $300 a head for seven months of training, race entrance fees, running shoes.

But it's a small price for the greater reward that goes beyond the grade-point average. "There's a lot of negative talk toward teenagers," Spears says. "This program makes them an important part of their family. It convinces parents that their kids are not evil."

And for those kids who don't have parents or guardians to speak of, it's a chance for kids to be close to an adult. "To know them very intimately, because," Spears explains, "if you've got someone rooting for you, you don't quit."

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