Oakland-based nonprofit brings structure to school playgrounds

When the bell rang at Cesar Chavez Elementary School signaling the start of recess Monday, a swarm of students rushed onto the blacktop and without instructions broke off into groups.

Two girls jumped rope, a dozen or so third- and fourth-graders played handball and others kicked a soccer ball. Noticeably absent was the tug-of-war that typically arises when two students want to play with the same thing.

Here, students use the game rock, paper, scissors to settle disputes. It’s a problem-solver they learned from Luciano Mondolo, a coach brought in to bring structure to one of the most chaotic times in the school day: recess.

“My vision is to have everybody playing,” said Mondolo, who was hired through Playworks, an Oakland-based nonprofit that trains full-time professionals to work in low-income schools.


But the activities Mondolo uses to engage students at the Norwalk campus have done more that just entertain. School officials said they have seen a reduction in bullying, behavioral problems and suspensions. Additionally, students are more alert and ready to learn after recess.

Stanford University and Mathematica Policy Research are expected to release a study Tuesday confirming the positive effects of organized playtimes. The researchers compared schools using Playworks to a group of similar schools without the program during the 2010-11 school year. The program, which operates in 300 schools nationwide, improved the school climate, with campuses reporting less bullying and improved overall behavior.

Robert Rayburn, the principal at Cesar Chavez, agreed with the study’s conclusion that recess often lacks the structure to promote “positive social development.” Rayburn used to have less time to focus on academics because he was busy disciplining students.

Last year, there were more than 100 such incidents, including about 25 fistfights. “The staff knew there were areas we could improve,” he said.


Of the 492 students at Cesar Chavez, 91% receive free or reduced-price lunches, a poverty indicator. The school scored 757 on the Academic Performance Index; the state target is 800.

Mondolo, a 29-year-old AmeriCorps member, arrived in September with energy and fresh ideas. He introduced exercise-heavy team activities like catch the flag. He engaged the wallflowers and even inspired teachers and the principal to join in.

“I’ve noticed that kids are happily involved in games instead of roaming. That’s when the trouble happens,” said Debbie Holash, a veteran fourth-grade teacher.

The response from students has been positive.

But Playworks isn’t cheap. The organization and Mattel cover 60% of the cost, but that still leaves $25,500. The school uses a federal grant for the rest.

Rayburn said this investment in the students’ future is worth it.

Back on the blacktop, Mondolo started a game of catch the flag and quietly slipped away to play four square with another group. Alexa Alvarado, a fourth-grader, left the game after she failed to hit the ball into the next square.

“I just used to play jump-rope or handball, but then he taught us other games and it got us excited,” she said of Mondolo.


The bell rang and the students lined up and marched into their classrooms. Recess was over.

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