A bean bag flies across an elementary school classroom. The thrower’s teamwork is encouraged, the catcher’s sportsmanship commended, all students in the circle soak up life skills they may not be fully aware they are learning.
The youths are part of the A’s and Aces after-school program, a curriculum that uses the game of tennis to teach life skills and character development to New Orleans public school children.
“Tennis is the hook,” co-founder David Schumacher said. “We get them in through tennis because tennis is fun, but this is A’s and Aces; we’re working to promote literacy.”
Students spend half of their time in the classroom, the other half on the tennis court with the coaches. In the classroom, kids learn the rules of tennis and scorekeeping as well as the overall discipline of being an athlete, including proper nutrition.
Younger kids begin with tossing foam balls and bean bags, easier for little hands to catch. On rainy days, this indoor substitute allows the program to keep the tennis playing alive.
Six kids are assigned to each coach outside on the courts, where they put their classroom knowledge into practice and practice applying the life skills in a competitive environment.
“We play tennis and have a lot of fun,” third-grader Isaiah Porea said. “We also do activities and arts and stuff, we get to make 3-D sculptures with paper and we play tennis games like ‘King of the Court’ and ‘Skeletons.’ ”
And the best part? If you win, “Coach makes you not pick up the balls,” Porea said.
According to Schumacher and co-founder Anna Manhartova, the nonprofit has 10 staff members and coaches and more than 100 volunteers to serve 150 kids, 100 percent of whom are on the free or reduced lunch program and 70 percent of whom live in single-parent homes.
“Our kids have a better ratio on the court with our volunteers than they do at home with their families,” Schumacher said.
Founded in 2008 by Schumacher and Monhartova as a way to give back to the community, A’s and Aces benefits from a partnership with Tulane.
“Instead of handing a child a book and telling them to read it, we use engaging topics to get them writing,” Monhartova said. “They are engaging in literacy without even knowing it.”
Freya Hoffman-Terry, one of the classroom instructors for A’s and Aces, uses Bean Bag Time as a sharing activity. Hoffman-Terry asks a question, tosses the bean bag and as each student catches the bean bag, he or she takes a turn responding.
Hoffman-Terry says the children are full of energy and excitement and it’s incredibly challenging to keep them sitting still even for short amounts of time. The tossing, catching and clapping encourage the hand-eye coordination players need on the tennis court.
“One of the really nice things about A’s and Aces is that it has allowed me to work with very small groups of students, six to eight at a time,” Hoffman-Terry said. “That may be the only time they get to read a story in a small enough group that they get to see the picture or have that opportunity to share in front of the class.”
Hoffman-Terry recalls one student describing the highlight of his past week as “I got to visit my Dad in jail.”
“They say things that are very outside my scope of experience and it reminds me how hard life can be for such young kids,” Hoffman-Terry said. Such moments provide opportunities for the youths to respond to peers using life lessons they’ve learned through the curriculum.
“I’ve seen some students, particularly some of my tough little boys, really make some powerful progress,” Hoffman-Terry said. “There’s something very special for me when I see little boys who come with all this toughness and negativity, and then see them understand things bigger than toughness or anger.”
Tennis coach Eric Pallin says the consistent enthusiasm from the youths is what makes the program particularly rewarding.
“They’re never down about anything for more than several minutes,” Pallin said. “They rebound very quickly.”