After school day, it's ethics time in new program

By Shari Rudavsky
Globe Correspondent

Sallie's just a paper-bag puppet - and a mermaid at that - but she already has the hang of the AfterSchool Partners program. Faced with attending a party or an award ceremony for her father, a.k.a. King of the Sea, Sallie opts for the latter.

It's all about choices, her creator, 11-year-old Sammi McGilvray, explains to about a dozen of her peers in the basement of the Oak Square YMCA in Brighton.

That's the message the After School Partners curriculum hopes to impart to other youths like Sammi. The curriculum, which fits within an after-school program, encourages youngsters to ponder how they make ethical choices by exposing them to local history.

Once a week Cindy Weiner, a Newton resident and former high school English teacher who developed the curriculum, heads to Brighton, where she takes over the after-school program for an hour.

For some it's a welcome change from the standard after-school diet of sports and outdoor activities.

"This is a lot different," said Gabrielle Mulrean, 11, who like Sammi attends sixth grade at St. Columbkille School in Brighton. "We have a program where we learn about choices. Here we have time to spend on different projects."

The curriculum has three parts, designed to aid in students' moral development. The first consists of activities such as puppet-making and skits that encourage students to discuss decision-making.

In the second section, Weiner leads her young charges out into their neighborhood to understand choices others have made, from both a historical and contemporary perspective. Along the way, they pick up tidbits of neighborhood history that help engage them more in the world around them, she said.

Participants in the Dorchester program, for example, learned about the history of the Codman Square Health Center, touring the facility and meeting its founder. In Allston, students learned that their neighborhood was one of the few towns in the country that takes its name from an artist, 19th-century portrait painter Washington Allston. According to the tale Weiner told the children, the struggling artist inherited a slave from a relative and could have sold her for a handsome sum, but instead opted to free her.

"These are the kinds of choices I want to bring to them," Weiner said. "Kids are connected globally with the Internet, but you ask them what the building next door is and they don't have a clue."

As a final project, the students craft posters that reflect the myriad choices made in their neighborhood. Throughout the program, the students and Weiner discuss how the choices they can help shape their own lives and those of others around them.

"This is really to examine their relationships with each other and to become more cognizant of one another, to think before they act, to begin to think intentionally," said Weiner, who tailors each course offered to the local history of the neighborhood.

At the Oak Square YMCA, Robbie Goodwin, the assistant teen director who oversees the Almost Teen program, already spends a lot of time focusing on character values in the activities he leads. Weiner's presence helps reinforce that, he said. "It's a nice spin on what we do here. . . . It's a different face for the same type of message."

Weiner came up with the idea of the AfterSchool Partners program about a year and a half ago. Since then, she has offered the program at the Central YMCA branch on Huntington Avenue, the Dorchester YMCA, and the Thomas Gardner School in Allston.

From the beginning, Weiner envisioned the curriculum as fitting best with out-of-school time, rather than as something incorporated into school. For many students, the hours after school are a limbo period in which neither parents nor teachers hang over them, watching their every move, Weiner noted.

"What do we want to do with that time? How do we optimize it? I see this as a very precious time for kids," Weiner said.

Thus far, Weiner herself leads each AfterSchool Partners program. Eventually, she hopes others will watch her model her curriculum and put it to use on their own.

The Oak Square students have caught on rapidly. Gabrielle and two friends devised an elaborate trio of paper puppet characters with a plot line to match. One of the puppets tries drugs and then espies one of Gabrielle's creations, Cuckoo Girl, whose "freaky" appearance shows her what will happen if she continues to indulge. Her choice? Not to do drugs.

© 2003 The Boston Globe

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