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Who's Watching the Teenagers?

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Drop-in centers are becoming popular places for older children to spend after-school hours.

Cleveland

As a young boy, Ed Haddad joined a gang. But now, in part because of an after-school center called the Playhouse, the 18-year-old is a role model for other teenagers.

"The people down here have helped me a great deal," he said of the staff at the center here in the western part of the city. "My parents preached to me, and the people here talked to me.

"As I got older and more mature, I figured that it's not what I want to do in life," Mr. Haddad said. "That's not where I want to end up--six feet in the grave or in prison."

Mr. Haddad is taking part in a growing movement in after-school care. Across the country, communities are setting up supervised after-school programs for youngsters who are considered too old for traditional day care.

The programs typically serve children ages 10 and older and are open in the hours after schools close.

Michelle Seligson, the director of the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, says organized after-school care for students drops off sharply after the 4th and 5th grades.

Few substitutes for after-school care are offered for children in the older age group, according to the "The National Study of Before and After School Programs," a report prepared by the Wellesley College group and Mathematica Policy Research of Princeton, N.J.

"Kids who have adult supervision are better off," Ms. Seligson said. "It's not something that we even need research to prove."

An increase in the number of families in which both parents work, as well as the growing number of single-parent families, means that students are more likely to be left on their own after school, Ms. Seligson said.

And it's those afternoon hours that can be troublesome for teenagers who have no adult supervision.

The Washington-based Council on Crime in America in a 1993 report found that each generation of juveniles is roughly three times as violent as the one it succeeds. And juvenile crimes take place in increasingly large numbers during the day and in the hours immediately following the end of the school day.

The Playhouse is in the basement of a gray clapboard house much like the ones that surround it in a neighborhood on the western edge of the urban sprawl called Cleveland.

In Tucson, Ariz., when city officials recently expanded their after-school program to include nearly 45,000 of the city's 7- to 12-year-old students, the response was so positive that the program was expanded again to include adolescents.

In Philadelphia, after-school programs run by the Police Athletic League, the local YMCA, and neighborhood churches are just a few of the alternatives parents have instead of leaving their children home alone.

And here in Cleveland, the so-called drop-in centers for teenagers are being hailed as a promising approach to keeping youngsters away from such temptations as drugs, sex, and gangs.

An Afternoon At the Playhouse

The Playhouse is in the basement of a gray clapboard house much like the ones that surround it in a neighborhood on the western edge of the urban sprawl called Cleveland.

Not much breaks the monotony, save for the bright splashes of graffiti painted on the side of a grocery store, on fences, and on most of the houses. The corner house that is home to the Playhouse stands out only for its lack of graffiti.

On this warm, fiercely sunny day in mid-October, the street corner is empty of the gang members who often congregate there, just beneath the street sign. And on the basement level of the West Side Community Mental Health Center, the children who come to the Playhouse feel very far from what goes on outside.

A part-time instructor has a small group of young girls painting pictures in a tiny room. And in the sparsely furnished, largest basement room, older teenagers have gathered to play billiards and listen to music on a boombox in the corner.

One of the teenagers playing pool is Mr. Haddad. By his own admission, he's made some poor choices in his life, but coming to the Playhouse wasn't one of them. Now, he's a Playhouse volunteer.

He says the center had a positive impact on what could have been a life destined for trouble.

"It's opened my eyes to a lot of things young teenagers can do as they get older, different activities that they can learn, to help them stay off the street and away from drugs and alcohol," Mr. Haddad said.

Roughly 25 young people ranging from ages 10 to 16 come to the Playhouse each day--a mix of students that you wouldn't generally see associating with one another in the neighborhood.

Transplanted Appalachians make up the largest segment of the population here, followed by Hispanics, African-Americans, and the beginnings of an Asian-American population, according to Sandra Scully, a licensed clinical counselor who acts as the program manager for the mental health center.

The rooms and the furnishings have a lived-in look from the legions of children who have used them since the Playhouse began almost by accident more than six years ago.

"We had a volunteer that came and helped us fix the basement up," Ms. Scully said. "It isn't a great basement now, but at least it's usable."

The children who attend the Playhouse have painted a wall of the largest room with colorful exotic animals and plants.

The rooms and the furnishings have a lived-in look from the legions of children who have used them since the Playhouse began almost by accident more than six years ago.

"One summer, a bunch of kids were hanging around and kept asking if we had anything for them to do," Ms. Scully said. "To accommodate them, we'd say, 'Oh, we need some good anti-drug posters,' and give them paper and pencil. When the drug and alcohol board that runs the center received some extra money, the mental health center submitted a proposal to open an after-school program.

"We still run the Playhouse with a very tiny little budget, which has hardly increased at all," Ms. Scully said. "We run it on peanuts." The Playhouse has a yearly budget of about $100,000.

In the space in front of the basement mural, drama instructor Barbara Corlette-Karoglan assembles the teenagers three times a week, transforming the claustrophobic space into a rehearsal hall behind a Broadway theater.

Ms. Corlette-Karoglan is an energetic actress who says she wants to show the Playhouse students that what they never believed was possible simply is.

"All kids want is something to do. All that parents want is a safe place for their kids to do something, with supervision. We provide that."

Barbara Corlette-Karoglan
Drama instructor at the Playhouse

Twice a year, the students perform in a showcase of scenes, vignettes from such Broadway staples as "The Glass Menagerie" and "Arsenic and Old Lace." Ms. Corlette-Karoglan believes that what the Playhouse offers is necessary for both parents and children.

"All kids want is something to do," Ms. Corlette-Karoglan said. "All that parents want is a safe place for their kids to do something, with supervision. We provide that."

The Playhouse stands out from some similar programs because it is free, she said. "A lot of these programs make the kids pay a great deal of money, but this is for the kids here, and we don't charge them anything."

The actress is a firm believer in the importance of having children learn the plays.

"These kids will show up and learn their lines, and that helps their reading," Ms. Corlette-Karoglan said. "Instead of doing a play, we do scenes from plays because everyone gets to be the star of their own scene.

"In drama, you have to read, and think, and use your brain," she added.

Ms. Corlette-Karoglan recently introduced the group to tap-dancing: "I can't get these kids out of here at night. They really love it."

The group of dancers, three boys and six girls ages 10 to 14, is learning a routine choreographed to music from the Broadway musical "42nd Street."

"I call them my nine phantom tap dancers," Ms. Corlette-Karoglan said. ''We have carpet on the floor so I recorded the music with the taps already on it."

Shelley Waters has been with the center for six years and is the program coordinator for the Playhouse, which doubles as an alcohol- and drug-abuse-prevention program.

"We provide alternatives to alcohol and tobacco use," Mr. Waters said. "We give kids a place to go after school that is a safe and a semi-structured environment."

Mr. Waters said the center has become something of an institution in the neighborhood, even to the gang members outside: ''The kids here look up to us. And the building doesn't get spray-painted either."

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