The Oregonian Features PAST&E: Article by Doug Perry

St. Johns program transforms 'at risk' kids into tennis players -- and that's just for starters

By Douglas Perry | 
February 25, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Dr. Spock favored being flexible. 

Amy Chua, the bestselling "Tiger Mother" author, banned her daughters from watching TV.

Hillary Clinton advocated getting a village to help out.

Or, to ensure you have a happy and successful child, you could offer up a tennis racket. Especially if the child is "at risk" -- that is, from a low-income or broken home.

Tennis? At first blush, it doesn't seem like a good fit for troubled kids. After all, tennis is a difficult sport -- even for world-class players. Last spring, after spewing 69 unforced errors in a two-set loss, French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova grumbled: "I play tennis for, like, 17 years and I still cannot put this little ball in this huge court. It's frustrating."

That it is. And seeing as you've surely seen footage of tennis great John McEnroe throwing a fit worthy of the most out-of-control toddler, you must wonder if you really want to subject your child to such frustrations.

"Coach Danice" has thought of that. "With our high-school players it's different, but with the younger kids we don't get into the competitive aspect," says Danice Brown, the executive director of Portland After-School Tennis & Education (PAST&E) at North Portland's St. Johns Racquet Center. "It's all about hitting and moving."

But the innovative program does zero in on methods that would be familiar to any player at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the famous Florida school that spits out top-ranked junior players like ... well, a ball machine. Brown is the first to admit she can be as tough as Bollettieri, a former Army officer.

"I'm strict. It's the only way," she says.

"Tennis demands a certain level of life skills, just the rules of the game and the etiquette of the game," she adds. "So tennis is a good choice for kids who need to learn to follow directions."

And once the kids learn to follow directions, the possibilities open up. "Basically, the tennis is a medium through which we can address tutoring," says Maureen Dugan, program and development director. "We help the kids with homework, work on life skills, help them learn to respect one another." Two racquetball courts at the St. Johns facility have been transformed into permanent classrooms. Here, the children do school homework and PAST&E-specific projects in between their tennis time, all overseen by mostly 20-something -- and mostly volunteer -- coaches who are clearly devoted to their charges.

The student-athletes are more successful when it's not just tennis they're learning," adds Dugan, "but when they're learning more about themselves and what they're capable of -- in the classroom, or at home with their families, or when they're out with the public."

Indeed, PAST&E's coaches believe the program's approach can pay off in ways far beyond what the kids -- or their parents -- expect.

"If you can teach children to be respectful and follow directions, teachers will love them," Brown says matter-of-factly. "And if the teacher loves them, they at least have a head start in the classroom -- even if they're behind, even if they're struggling. It can make a big difference."

You might think that's a cynical attitude toward public-school teachers. Considering the size of classes and available resources in our schools, it also can be called realistic.

"A lot of the kids who are at risk do not fall into the category of kids that teachers want to love," Brown says. 

PAST&E kids in actionThe Portland After-School Tennis & Education program promotes fitness, discipline and personal responsibility for "at-risk" kids.
Moving these kids into a different category -- whether the category is real or just perceived -- is key to the free program, which draws valuable support from Nike and the United States Tennis Association. Brown, who raised six children of her own, strongly believes that kids need structure -- that they wantrules. Children will naturally push boundaries, but it's stressful for them when they're actually successful at it, when they're left to float in space and search out new boundaries of their own making. The young tennis players in PAST&E, Brown says, "know what's expected of them and they live up to that."

This is no small accomplishment. Some of these children, says Brown, face traumatic home lives. She points out one boy on court who "has a terrible situation at home. He sometimes needs someone to pull him out and talk to him. He's not necessarily misbehaving because he wants to disrupt everything. He's just a mess himself." 

The rules, however, bend for no one. Either you follow directions and respect your coaches and fellow players, or you sit. "But they love playing so much," Brown says, "no one wants to sit."

Parents (or legal guardians) have to qualify for the Portland Public Schools' free or reduced lunch program for their child to join PAST&E's after-school team. (PAST&E also runs a summer program open to a broader swath of players.) And Brown makes clear that the after-school program doesn't just expect a lot from its kids. "We ask a lot of the families. Families have to attend monthly meetings. They have to pick up their kids on time. They have to take it seriously. So the parents are under scrutiny, too. We try to do parent advocacy and parent training."

The program's success is obvious as soon as you meet its 30 children, who range from kindergarten students to fifth graders. They know when to wash their hands and when to snap to attention, when to do their homework and, of course, when to grab a racket and hit the court. When a new adult is in attendance, each child approaches, holds out a hand for a good shake, and politely introduces him- or herself.

And fear not, Dr. Spock devotees, their personalities have not been squashed by this discipline. They yelp and playfully chide one another on court. One girl giggles maniacally whenever she hits the ball dead-on. And when a 9-year-old boy is told he has a heckuva forehand, he slides into a stylish end-zone strut. "Just takes practice," he says. "You just gotta practice."

-- Douglas Perry