Math Games On Mean Streets
Direction Sports mixes athletics with academics to arm city youths with self-esteem
ON a quiet Saturday morning, on a serene, eucalyptus-lined campus, Pandemonium is breaking loose.
"What's your name?" yells a man from the front of a darkened auditorium.
"Direction Sports!" comes the unison cry of about 200 teen-and-elementary-age kids, pounding feet and clapping hands.
"Where are you headed?"
"To the top!"
Volunteers are selected from each of the two community chapters that have gathered for a day of intra-club math and sports contests. They line up at the front and begin sounding off in order:
"One," "Two," "Three," "Four," "Five," "Six," "Buzz!" "Eight," "Nine," "Ten," "Eleven," "Twelve," "Thirteen," "Buzz!" "Fifteen," "Sixteen," "Buzz!"....
Anyone uttering a number containing, or divisible, by seven sits down, until a lone victor remains standing.
Each chapter cheers its own contestants - and the in-studio crowds for "The Price Is Right" or "Wheel of Fortune" have nothing on these East Los Angeles youths.
"This makes math more fun than going to school," says 12-year-old Gerard Hernandez.
"Because here, you get to play and learn at the same time. At school they just make you do stuff."
Next: More math games using adjacent chalkboards; a written test of math problems; and an intramural flag-football game in the college stadium, complete with referees and cheerleaders.
Welcome to one of the most successful, but low-profile, urban programs in America.
By employing inner-city teenagers to work as coaches and teachers for area youths, the program gives those age 7 to 19 viable alternatives to the gang, drug, and cruising culture of the streets.
Beyond its "incidental" success - producing better grades, better athletes, and better-adjusted citizens - Direction Sports aims at far more: arming youngsters with self-esteem.
"There are lots of programs out there to teach or give youth quality time," says founder and executive director Tulley Brown. "But not many know how to empower.
"Giving them a sense of their own worth develops the reservoir from which every other good endeavor flows."
Mr. Brown began the program in 1967 when he discovered that a thief who had stolen his car was both an orphan and a high-school dropout. Realizing that less than 20 percent of a child's waking hours each year were spent in school, Brown surmised there was no way urban youths could develop and compete with children who were better off unless there were support services in their communities during the other 80 percent of the kids' time.
Now a nonprofit organization that relies on public and private grants, Direction Sports has programs in nine other cities, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta, New York, and Phoenix. Its one-year high of 25 chapters has dwindled with the federal budget cuts of the Reagan-Bush years.
Brown sees a common theme in that decline, the Los Angeles riots, and the yearly increase in teenage murders and suicides: failure to address the fundamental need of youths for affirmation and a sense of self-worth.
`THE confident person can concentrate; the immature fantasizes," Brown says. "The confident can forgive; the insecure is vengeful. The confident is tolerant; the unconfident, intolerant."
One of the reasons for Direction Sports' success may be its emphasis on peer-run programs. Eighteen-year-old Ruth Garcia, a freshman at California State College, for instance, is paid $7 an
hour to train student teachers drawn from remedial programs in area high schools. Those students, in turn, are paid $4.25 and hour to teach youngsters age 7 to 12.
"Because these student teachers are not adults, they are not seen as superiors," says Garcia. "The kids tend to listen more and rise to their level."
"This has been a chance for me to be responsible," says Bertha Velasquez, an 18-year-old senior at Wilson High, "and that feels good."
Juan Campos, a 12-year-old from Ramona Gardens, says he would be in a gang if he didn't attend the three afternoon sessions of Direction Sports each week.
"I'm learning how to work in groups," Juan says of the 40-minute sessions that have helped raise his failing grades in math to Bs. "It also keeps me off the streets, so I don't get into trouble."
Ladell Hill, the 20-year-old head of coaches, says the genius of Direction Sports is its dual emphasis on math and football.
"Kids learn early that you can't just concentrate on one thing and be successful in life," he says. "It brings more kinds of kids into the program, who help others see that both academics and sports are important."