LEAP Gives Kids a Jump on Learning

"Do the Mr. Simpson with me," says fourth-grader Rasheequa Davis, giggling to her friend Amber Taylor as she waits to board the swan-boat ride in the Boston Public Garden.

Without missing a beat, Amber slaps her hands with her friend's to the rhythm of the popular hand-clapping game - chanting the words along with the movements.

Relaxed and happy, the girls, along with six other group members and three counselors, are on a five-day adventure in Boston, thanks in part to a successful bake sale.

The New Haven group is part of LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership for Connecticut Youth), which receives funding from the federal AmeriCorps program and also helped pay for the trip.

Managed entirely by local teens with a supervising adult board, LEAP aims to help kids in tough urban neighborhoods get the opportunity to connect with mentors and fill often-idle summer hours with reading, music, and dance. During the school year, LEAP gives kids a place to go after school for help with homework and to join in other activities.

Everything from training new hires to planning the $5 million budget is handled exclusively by counselors in the program who are high school and college age.

"Its like a hands-on organizational management training for the young," says Ann Calabresi, one of the founders of LEAP. "Young people should be able to make mistakes and learn from them. And let me tell you, they don't make mistakes twice. They're committed to making this work," she adds.

Ms. Calabresi conceived of LEAP seven years ago while running an after-school track team for some of New Haven's poorest kids. She realized her program was important but wasn't helping kids advance. What they needed was a support system, a way to be encouraged and guided through school and into adulthood.

With that idea in mind, and using resources from local universities such as Yale, Calabresi began the LEAP summer program the following year.

She says the LEAP concept can be re-created in any city with a university, which offers a source of educated young people to jump-start the program. Currently LEAP operates in the Connecticut cities of New Haven, New London, and Hartford, and an expansion to Bridgeport and Waterbury is under consideration.

Calabresi says the program achieves much of its effectiveness from the leadership roles of students. Only $10 of the budget went unaccounted for last year, for example. And in a community where more than one-third of high-schoolers drop out, every junior counselor who has entered the LEAP program has left with a high school diploma. Eighty-four percent have continued on to college and successful careers.

"We consciously make sure they complete high school, think about college, and make plans for after high school," says Nicole Johnston, LEAP's executive director. If a counselor receives a C in a class, for example, a tutor is assigned to him or her. If the counselor fails, it is suggested that the person take a semester off from LEAP to focus on studies.

As the high school and college students learn responsibility and pursue diplomas, the younger LEAPers take their cues from the counselors. The teens take on the role of young mentors who care about the child's success, empathize with the difficulties of growing up in the inner city, and keep track of everything from homework to dentist appointments.

"I don't think people can succeed very well in education unless people expect them to.... If a child has at least one person in his life that believes he can do the work to get through high school and get a job, he'll probably be able to do it," Calabresi says.

Take Ronelle Moore. Ronelle's grandmother enrolled him in LEAP when he was nine years old so he would do something constructive. Now a teenager, Ronelle sees LEAP as far more than a place to go when school isn't in session. "LEAP has made me more responsible. I have a job, I take care of myself," he says. "I'm staying out of trouble now. I'd probably be hanging on the streets or doing something negative, like stealing or robbing people [if it weren't for LEAP]."

Ronelle is mentoring kids now, but back when he was just a young LEAP participant, he remembers an older student mentoring him. "He would correct me if I was wrong, give me pointers, help me out.... Once, I was about to get into a fight and he stopped us and talked to us, and told us why not to do it and what the consequences were."

As more youngsters like Ronelle are given encouragement through programs such as LEAP, Calabresi and Ms. Johnston believe that communities as well as individuals will be enriched.

"Young people have the capacity to change what happens in their community when given the opportunity and tools to make a change," Johnston says. "They will rise to the challenge and take responsibility for what happens."

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