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Program for troubled kids in jeopardy

The YMCA's Yes Program may lose its funding grant.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - On the day of their final exam, Sonya Graham's seventh-grade class sat politely in their chairs inside the portable at Meadowlawn Middle School.

They playfully poked each other and volunteered to have their writing assignments read aloud.

One girl shyly ducked her head down because there were visitors in the room.

It's a far cry from the behavior that would be expected of a group of students who were assigned to Graham's classroom because they had been sent to the assistant principal's office one too many times.

Graham's students are part of the YMCA's Yes Program, an initiative that targets at-risk youths who need extra attention in order to succeed academically.

Since the program's inception in 2001, hundreds of students have learned how to control their behavior and improve their grades.

But the program that has given so many troubled youths a second chance now faces its own troubles. A federal juvenile justice grant, which provides more than half of the program's funding, expires at the end of the school year, and YMCA officials are unsure if the grant will be extended.

If it isn't, that means the six Pinellas County middle schools that participate in the program could potentially lose one of their greatest resources in dealing with so-called "problem" students.

"These are the kids who don't have social skills," said Susan Biszewski-Eber, director of middle school programs for the YMCA. "We provide them with a confidante or a liaison, someone they can trust."

The program operates at Meadowlawn, Pinellas Park Middle School, Dunedin Highland Middle School, Kennedy Middle School, Riviera Middle School, and Bay Point Middle School.

Schools are outfitted with mediators who help break up fights and listen to students' problems.

The YMCA also equips the schools with instructors such as Graham who teach a Life Skills class that focuses on self-esteem, conflict resolution, peer pressure, communication and the consequences of drug and alcohol use.

By the end of the course, there is a noticeable improvement in the students' behavior, Biszewski-Eber said.

The YMCA measures the program's success based on the student's academic improvement during the duration of the Life Skills class. Students who enter the school year with low attendance records, high suspension rates and poor grade point averages are able to improve their grades and behavior after one semester of the course, according to YMCA records.

At the beginning of the school year, many students are unsure of the program's purpose, Graham said.

"The kids are like, 'I want to be in band. How did I end up here?' " she said on a recent day before her students took their exam.

"Once they get in here and see what it's about, they say, 'Oh, I know why I am here.' They get it."

Mediators Derrick Bullard and Niki Cushing pay attention to who's falling asleep in class or stepping off the bus with a scowl on their face.

After a while, students start to let the mediators know about a brewing fight or a student storing marijuana in his locker.

The program has earned such high marks from the students it helps that other students have begun to take notice.

On a recent day, Cushing was approached by a young girl she had never met who confided that she was being abused.

It had gone on for four years, but the girl had never told anyone.

"Why tell me?" Cushing asked the youth.

Because, the girl said, everyone says they can talk to you.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or

[Last modified December 15, 2007, 21:50:04]

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