4-H Moves Off Country Roads Into the Inner City

After-school programs help urban children improve grades, support community

After seven years in 4-H, Cesar Placsentia has never competed in the county fair, raised a cow, or trained a horse. Instead, he credits 4-H with saving him from the gangs that dominate his Los Angeles housing project.

"If 4-H wasn't right across the street from my house, I'd probably be out on the streets with the other guys," says Cesar, a 15-year-old high schooler whose mother emigrated from Mexico.

In Los Angeles, 4-H has nothing to do with monthly meetings about raising livestock. Cesar attends an after-school program run by 4-H in Dana Strand Village, a public-housing development in the industrial Harbor section of L.A.

For many Americans, 4-H might as well stand for horses, homemaking, hatching chicks, and hogs. Yet it is coming to mean homework, hot meals, healthy environments, and havens from urban violence.

Today, 4-H is "much more diverse and found in more places than expected," says Richard Sauer, president of the National 4-H Council in Chevy Chase, Md.

Only 12 percent of the more than 5 million youths involved in 4-H (head, heart, hands, and health) live on farms, and one-third live in cities of more than 50,000 people and in suburban areas.

In addition to after-school programs in several cities, modern 4-H offers AIDS education and career-development programs. In Washington, the organization is helping teen prostitutes get off the street.

Nearly 3 million students are getting 4-H, through school programs where local staff provide training and curricula for teachers to use in their classrooms.

In 1995, a $3.5 million grant from the United States Housing and Urban Development Agency expanded the 4-H after-school program from Los Angeles to urban communities in Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia, and Kansas City, Mo.

Each of the four sites in Kansas City includes a paid adult director who lives in the public-housing community being served. Five teen mentors are also paid to help teach younger children. Subject areas include literacy, environmental themes, cultural issues, health, and nutrition.

The participants, ages 5 to 11, stay from 4:30 to 7 p.m. and are given dinner before leaving. "Serving that meal at the end is not only nutritional, but it's also a hook for keeping the kids in," says Tiffany Shell, the program coordinator. "We say, 'We've got this wonderful food, but you've got to do your homework and follow our rules to get the fun things.' "

The first 120 children enrolled in the program are being followed during a three-year evaluation. Early results show improved school attendance and grades.

Experiments to introduce 4-H in urban areas date back to the 1960s, when federal funding was available for such efforts.

In the mid-'80s, 4-H staff in Los Angeles tried to create traditional community clubs in city neighborhoods. But, "It never yielded parent volunteers who could sustain the program," says John Pusey, a 4-H staffer who started the first-of-its-kind after-school program at Dana Strand in 1988. Now, Los Angeles has 20 4-H after-school sites at public-housing developments or nearby elementary schools in some of its toughest neighborhoods.

"We have a huge population of relatively recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America who don't have any experience with 4-H," Mr. Pusey says. "For them, what we're doing in the name of 4-H is their only understanding of it."

As the after-school program expanded to other parts of the country, others who had heard of 4-H wondered what it could bring to their urban environment. "What are you going to do, come in here and show us some cows?" they asked.

"These kids are used to walking out on cement every morning," Ms. Shell. "We can't expect them to go raise hogs."

Instead, the emphasis in urban 4-H programs is on bolstering academics and providing a safe place for students.

Geraldine Matthews, a Kansas City elementary teacher, saw a dramatic change in one of her fifth-grade students who started going to the 4-H after-school program. She describes his attitude at the beginning of the school year as "playing hard." His attendance was poor and he never brought homework to class. After a few months in 4-H, his attendance improved, and he started showing up with homework. "He had a desire to be on time, on task, and on a mission," Ms. Matthews says.

In L.A., Cesar has seen his grades rise from C's and D's to mostly A's and B's. "You have to do homework before you can do anything else," he says. Since his mother received little education, Cesar relies on the staff and older students in 4-H. "They've helped me get through school a lot," he says.

What goes on in these programs bears almost no resemblance to traditional 4-H, which started early this century as a training ground for young boys who would eventually take over the family farm.

One of the few mainstays is the 4-H pledge: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country, and my world."

"That pledge is as meaningful today for a city kid as a country kid," Mr. Sauer says.

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