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Charleston School, LYTA Using Tennis To Improve Kids' Behavior

March 19, 2015 03:22 PM

Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

JOHNS ISLAND, S.C. – Tennis has benefited the Charleston area in many ways over the years.

The sport has helped the area’s economy, especially every April when thousands flock to the Family Circle Cup. Tennis also helps more than 5,000 Charleston USTA league players enjoy camaraderie and exercise every year.

The sport’s most important contribution to the area, though, might be what a nearby school with fewer than 530 students has tried this school year.

Haut Gap Middle School is using tennis and a well-known USTA academic program to improve students’ grades and behavior.

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Haut Gap tennis instructor John Farrelly and Haut Gap student Lauren Hernandez celebrate a good shot during practice. Farrelly tries to teach life skills during tennis that will help the students in other classes as well. (USTA SC photo.)


Two days a week, some students needing extra behavioral or academic support skip an elective, such as physical education or music. On one of the days, the students study the USTA’s Academic Creative Engagement curriculum, or ACE, which focuses on math, literacy, nutrition, tennis and social skills. The other day, the students learn how to play tennis.

“It’s not so much I’m going to exclusively teach you tennis lessons,” said Daniel Vella, an assistant principal at Haut Gap. It’s more like, Vella said, “Here’s how to play that sport and here’s the life lessons you can learn from being out there.”

Haut Gap has been using the ACE and tennis program only since August, but school officials have seen enough to say the program works. Students speak highly of it and look forward to their classes. Their behavior has improved and administrators expect the students’ grades to improve as well.

“Overall, it’s a success,” Vella said.

He and other school administrators were approached last summer about using ACE and tennis by officials with the Lowcountry Youth Tennis Association, a Charleston non-profit that provides youth tennis programs.

Katherine Lewis, LYTA president and a school climate specialist for the Charleston County School District, and other local officials had seen tennis help improve kids’ behavior during summer programs.

The LYTA officials approached Haut Gap administrators because the school was already using an innovative behavior program, said Meg Farrelly, an LYTA board member.

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Meg Farrelly

The school's “Positive Behavior Intervention Supports" encourages teachers to model and teach students how they should behave rather than how they should not. The program is part of a school-wide support framework for the success of all students.

Haut Gap administrators agreed to try tennis, and in the fall, about eight kids took the courses. This spring, nine are enrolled.

During one afternoon last month, the students showed the program’s early success.

John Farrelly, LYTA school programs director, stood with three students inside a classroom and pointed to a poster that outlined the behavior he expected to see the next 50 minutes.

“What I want you to work on today is using positive words and action,” Farrelly said to the class of three girls, three people smaller than usual.

A few minutes later, they walked outside, past the three classroom trailers behind the school and onto the two tennis courts, which look new – no cracks or weeds. The shining sun made it feel warmer than 59 degrees.

About 30 minutes into class, the girls were playing “King of the Court” when Lauren Hernandez hit a clean forehand winner past a classmate. “Good job,” Lauren said to her friend.

Lauren, like a lot Haut Gap students, had only occasionally played tennis before last fall. She enjoys playing weekly now. “I can get more exercise and I can move a lot,” she said.

The exercise students get is another reason the program works, said Melvin Wright, a counselor at Haut Gap. Most kids naturally prefer to play and run around outside rather than sit in a classroom.

“It’s a better intervention, especially at the middle school level,” Wright said.

The program also has improved kids’ behavior.

Most of the students who have gone through the tennis and ACE program now behave better in the classroom, as measured by the behavior grade students get at the end of each day, Wright said.

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Before tennis, Courtney Birmingham said she was timid. After experiencing success on the court, she said, "I feel like I can conquer the world." (USTA SC photo.)


To Courtney Birmingham, a 13-year-old seventh grader on court with Lauren, the program has helped her gain confidence.

Before she played tennis at school, she was shy. “I used to be as timid as a mouse,” she said.

During other classes, she was often afraid to raise her hand or speak up at all. Her friends and teachers had to remind her raise to her voice. But, through having success on the tennis court, such as striking a solid backhand every now and again, she’s now more likely to raise her hand and speak clearly when answering that question in her classes.

“(Tennis) helps me get more courage,” Courtney said, standing tall, speaking clearly and looking you in the eye. “It’s made me feel like I can do anything. I feel like I can conquer the world.”

John Farrelly has seen other kids’ improve in a similar way. The kids see they can be good at tennis, and soon they believe their success can transfer to other areas, including math class.

“Everything then all comes together,” said Farrelly, who also teaches music two days a week at a Charleston elementary school.

Meg Farrelly, John’s wife, said, “Tennis is the fun so that we can make a change in other places.”

Vella, the assistant principal, said staff members plan to review behavior and achievement data this summer and find more students to send to ACE and tennis in the fall.

He is particularly encouraged by the program because few Haut Gap kids played tennis regularly before but now almost all who have played the sport enjoy it.

Vella also is excited because the life skills kids learn during ACE and tennis, such as how to win and lose gracefully and how to work well with others, will benefit the students – and the Charleston area – long after the kids graduate eighth grade and leave Haut Gap.

“All those kind of latent functions aren’t just applicable to the sport, they’re applicable to real life,” Vella said, “and that’s what the program focuses on.”

 

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