Program for at-risk youth makes prodigies
A project spearheaded by USF’s School of Social Work to inspire creativity in high-risk youth will put on a show highlighting participants’ work this month.
Organizers said the show demonstrates how the art-oriented project, now in its seventh year, can prevent youth from falling into crime.
William S. Rowe, the principal investigator of the program and director of the School of Social Work, said the program, Prodigy, prevents children with lesser criminal offenses from ending up in jail. Lesser offenses include first-time arrests or offenses and those not exceedingly violent.
“We consider it primarily a preventive program,” said Rowe.
Prodigy is organized by the USF School of Social Work, University Area Community Development Corporation, Bay Area Youth Services, Inc., and community- and faith-based organizations. It is funded by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
The program started as a research project. Rowe said the groups wanted see if they could engage children in the cultural arts after school to keep them out of trouble and risky behavior. Their data repeatedly showed that the program helped make a difference in children’s lives, he said.
They then decided to expand the program, both to urban environments and suburban and rural areas. There are other Prodigy programs that include youth from gangs in rural areas located in Pasco and Polk County.
Prodigy’s Tampa program has 1,800 children involved. 800 students are from the juvenile justice system, while 1,000 of them are from high-risk neighborhoods. Their ages range from 7 to 17.
“Engaging them in this set of activities seems to make them more positive towards their community. They become more capable and their self-esteem rises,” said Rowe. “As a side effect – which has surprised us, to tell you the truth – their scores on mental health issues improved. We didn’t actually set out to do that.”
About 80 percent of juvenile crime happens between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., which is when the program runs, he said.
The program offers children a wide range of cultural arts including theater, media art, dance, music and visual arts.
“Art is the great equalizer – everybody can do something,” said Rowe. “In sports you have to be fast or strong; in arts there is something you can do that will engage your interest. And that is why we chose art as the medium for the intervention.”
A unique side of the program is that its classes are not taught by classroom teachers, but by actual artists, actors, musicians and dancers.
Jerry Miller, the program director, said the idea is for children to see people who work as artists.
“There is a very different relationship than the traditional classroom,” said Miller.
Larry Bukovey, the Prodigy Supervisor of Bay Area Youth Services, Inc., agrees.
“They come into each class on equal ground with the kids, and instead of teaching over the kids, they teach alongside of them,” he said.
Earlier in November, artwork by the children was shown in a gallery at the University Mall.
On Dec. 8, the University Area Community Center will host the Prodigy Winter Showcase. The art gallery will open at 11 a.m. and stage performances will start at 12 p.m. The showcase will be the program’s largest to date.
There will be children from Pasco, Polk, Sarasota, Pinellas and Tampa, along with representatives from all 20 Prodigy programs. The program is free to the public.