On her first day on the job at Bryant Elementary, Coach Addie Honeycutt said recess was crazy.
“There were a million kids on the play structure all at once, soccer was played at four different places with 18 different balls, and someone was always getting hit in the face,” Honeycutt said as she caught her breath from the first 15-minute recess of the day.
Of course, she said, it’s normal for recess to be like that at any school. But Playworks, a nonprofit hired by Bryant and six other Mission District schools, organizes recess into a period in which teamwork, leadership and conflict resolution are also integrated.
Founded in 1996 in Oakland, Playworks is currently in 300 schools across 22 U.S. cities, a reach that is managed through federal grants — specifically, its partnership with Americorps, the government program that allocates resources to nonprofits across the country.
“Americorps members work inside the community, and that’s what our program does, too,” Playworks program associate Liz Kunkel said. “We are able to reach more schools with Americorps.”
Playworks provides each school with one coach, usually a young, active person like Honeycutt. She works nine hours a day and makes just over $24,000 in 10 months.
Of the 25 Playworks coaches in 21 San Francisco schools, 13 are Americorps members.
The cost for each school to implement Playworks: $60,000. Low-income schools like Bryant pay $25,500 for the 10-month program, and Playworks funds the rest. This money, the administrative overhead and the cost for coaches come from fundraising and a well-connected board with deep pockets of their own. Kim Tanner and Mark Seiler, two of Playworks’ board members, are connected with foundations that gave grants totalling $4.6 million in 2009.
The three Mission schools paid for Playworks with a portion of their $1 million yearly School Improvement Grants. It is one of dozens of new programs the three-year grants have provided.
At Bryant, Honeycutt is one more adult on the playground, where at least three other teachers or staff members already have recess duty. The difference is that Honeycutt organizes structured games to create a positive play environment for the 125 kids who are outside at the same time. The other adults on the playground keep watch over safety and discipline.
“Having me at recess helps a lot,” said Honeycutt, who already knows every student’s name. “Every student gets to know me as someone who is involved in the fun part of their day.”
One moment Honeycutt is leading a version of a soccer game that has only four kids on the field at once and ever-changing teams, so everyone has a chance to play. Later she’s breaking up a teary conflict over a jumprope. Then she’s back to the foursquare court.
She has created a map of what games can be played where — very useful, she said, on an otherwise cluttered urban playground.
Other outdoor rules that Honeycutt said have had positive impacts on the students: No team captains in kickball, use only positive reinforcement and no playing tag unless she organizes it.
“Tag can be really cliquey,” she said.
Just weeks old at Bryant, the program’s early success, said Bryant Principal Christina Velasco, shows how the services bought with federal money can indeed improve a school’s climate.
“Teachers have said it, the kids have said it and the parents have noticed it: It’s created a safer place for kids to be outside,” Velasco said.
Beyond structured playtime, positive play can translate to the classroom. According to a national Playworks survey, 85 percent of principals at schools with Playworks said their students were more engaged in the classroom after a year with the program.
Velasco sees the onset of similar results at Bryant. Playground fights have declined, she said, and classroom leadership increased.
In the past, Bryant has had a less organized P.E. program and a coach who comes just a few times a week to the school, dividing his time between schools.
Watching from a shady bench as her second-grade class interacted with Honeycutt for its weekly 30-minute class, teacher Vanyes Morales said that having the Playworks program at Bryant is “awesome.”
“It teaches [the students] how to play and how to relate. It’s a break in the day for them, academically,” Morales said.
“And for me,” she added, laughing.
The big challenge will come in the next few years, when there is no more federal money to support programs like these at struggling Mission schools.
Playworks’ Kunkel said that other schools have explored additional fundraising options to sustain the program after losing similar grant money.
“We will actively look for funding,” Velasco said.