Volume 74, Number 27 | November 10 - 16, 2004

Jasmine, a Boys and Girls Republic student, left, wrote an “excellent essay on good sportsmanship,” according to Samuel Tyler, physical education director, right.

Citizens of the Republic are learning the right skills

By Judith Stiles

It is not the Ten Commandments from the Bible that is hanging on the wall of the gym at The Boys and Girls Republic on E. Sixth St. and Avenue D, but rather an upbeat “Ten Commandments of Good Sportsmanship,” hopefully to set a positive tone for hundreds of games played there throughout the year. “Thou shall not gloat if you win. . . Thou shall not quit. . .Thou shall not take unfair advantage of an opponent....” They are seemingly elementary concepts put forth to guide the students, but they are also ideas that might have given pause to a few baseball fans during those gnarly games between the Yankees and the Red Sox.

“Win at all costs” is considered bad sportsmanship by Samuel Tyler, B.G.R.’s physical education instructor, who laments having to spend a great deal of time trying to undo the influence of bad sportsmanship that he sees in major league sports.

Not to be confused with The Boys and Girls Club, a distinctly different organization, The Boys and Girls Republic is under the auspices of the Henry Street Settlement, and is home to four groups: an after-school program for children ages 6-12 years, evening classes and activities for teenagers, Loisada Youth Soccer and an exciting new high school program.

In collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, New Beginnings, a community-based high school, provides 60 students who have been labeled “disruptive” in larger high schools, a chance to participate in an innovative curriculum that centers on self-government. Here students learn about citizens’ rights and responsibilities; they draft their own constitution, elect officials and have a judicial system, penal code and community service. The program also emphasizes literacy and math, with six Department of Education teachers providing a core curriculum. On the ground floor of the school is a mini-courtroom, replete with oak seating, a jury box, a dais and gavel for the judge and an overall atmosphere that is so realistic, it could be used for “Court TV.”

After a vigorous, month-long debate about raising student taxes, which fund school dances and other activities, a bill was presented in this room by elected officials, (students), to raise taxes from $1.25 to $5 per year. It passed with many citizens (also students) crying foul at this “unfair” tax hike that will strain their wallets. If a student breaks a school rule, a mock trial is held with defense and prosecuting attorneys, and sentences are handed down by the judge, resulting in an appropriate number of hours of community service given to the offender. Judges and attorneys are all students, duly elected by the student citizens.

“You can see there is no graffiti on the school walls,” says Samuel Tyler with pride, adding that the system of self-government, which permeates all the activities in the program, gives the students a sense of belonging and civic responsibility. Tyler is no rookie at The Boys and Girls Republic, as he joined as a citizen in 1952 when the organization was called The Boys Brotherhood Republic, designed for boys only. At the time, there were several gangs on the Lower East Side, ironically, one of them calling themselves The Sportsmen. For Tyler and others, The Boys Brotherhood Republic was a home away from home that kept kids off the streets. Today, he is not only a well-respected and beloved leader in the school, but among the students and faculty he has the aura of a senior senator, “the wise man” who patiently and thoughtfully works with every student who takes his classes. “I want the students to have fun and I work to help them acquire fundamental skills that will hopefully last throughout their lives,” he says as he proudly recounts how his latest batch of students wrote excellent essays about “The Ten Commandments of Sportsmanship” from their own personal perspective.

Richard Ravinski, director of support services and another alumnus of The Boys Brotherhood Republic, fondly recalls his mentor, Ralph Hittman, as “one of the great men of the Lower East Side, who believed there were no truly bad boys.” First encountering him when he was 8, Ravinski recalls Hittman as a “former military man, square-shouldered, cigar-smoking, two-fingered typist — a loveable man with a great vision of building a new community youth facility on the Lower East Side.”

In the 1960s Hittman persuaded Brooke Astor and the Astor Foundation to fully support the construction of the current building, which is now at 888 E. Sixth St. Within the hallway entrance there is a beautiful blue mural with a symbolic “tree of sorrow,” bent and barren, side by side with “the tree of life” that bears apple-shaped fruit, depicting the happy faces of children. Hittman, now in his 80s, still resides on the Lower

East Side with his wife, Rose. The couple were recently honored with the renaming of Camp Wabenaki, an affiliated Upstate summer camp, as Camp Ralph and Rose Hittman.

In 1997, The Boys and Girls Republic became a full program of Henry Street Settlement, serving over 700 children a year. Last year, social worker Dawn Kosnoski moved over from Henry Street to become B.G.R.’s assistant director. As she enthusiastically describes a typical day for a student, she affirms how she loves to go to work each day, because “Young people remind me of what’s good in the world.”

Michael Burgos, B.G.R.’s director, originally from the Bronx, can be seen mingling with the students, checking in on new programs, because he too has great hope that New Beginnings will successfully transition the students back into larger high schools with a renewed sense of responsibility.

Nobody on the staff at B.G.R. just shows up to work and punches the clock, ho-hum. Everyone is dedicated to promoting the model of self-government and good citizenship, and as they walk by the blue mural every day with the tree of life and the tree of sorrow, it is a vivid reminder of how fragile children are as they grow into adults, withering or blossoming, depending on the environment.

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