Megan Demarkis-Harlem RBIPosted: July 16, 2010
On one of the many nights this summer I have sat out on the bench at Vox Pop Cafe, here in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I have come to talk to many interesting people. If the topic of conversation swings toward education, you can bet on a fairly passionate exchange. One evening I happened to be seated next to Megan Demarkis. We got into an exchange of ideas after I learned that she was the Director of Organizational Excellence at Harlem, RBI, a community-based youth program combining baseball and literacy. I found many of her ideas compatible with my own and so we scheduled a more extensive interview.
Harlem RBI has been around for 20 years of which Megan has been a devoted mover and shaker for 7 years. The organization started as a Little League organization. RBI stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. It was started in Los Angelos by professional baseball scout who was trying to infuse baseball into the inner city with the hopes of generating new talent.
By a confluence of circumstances the group grew into a literacy program. Teachers who would volunteer during the summer coaching baseball in the Harlem RBI Little League program, began to express their desire to bring the enthusiasm the children expressed for baseball over to other subjects. Things like math, reading, showing up for school and being engaged academically. So it was thought to use baseball as a hook, and then introduce other ideas. The end result being that baseball has become the teaching tool itself.
I shared with Megan my own experience with drawing at Brooklyn Free School where, when volunteering, would announce that I would be drawing in a certain location and allowed whoever wished, to join me. The idea first came to me through a Capoeira teacher who would just set up to practice at school, and let anyone who wanted to come and join him. This would become a forum where several children would gather to draw, but our conversations would venture all over the world. Harlem RBI ventures to do the same thing with baseball.
After her experiences in public education, she was looking for a more engaging approach to building relationships with students that would guide them closer to real learning. Her focus became students who do not have access to alternative education. Either from parents who lacked the knowledge that would take them outside the institutional approach, or a lack of financial resources
When she started, she was a part-time coordinator working with 9th and 10th graders, which as she expresses “I was inventing a program as I was implementing it.”
“You are basically building the airplane in the sky as it is moving,” she added.
What started out as a 20 hour-a-week job quickly turned into 60 hours. It turned into an all consuming passion which led into other parts of the organization. She began to build elementary school programs and camps. “Youth learn best when they have the opportunity to play freely.” she said. She was in agreement with me that the public system is designed to create followers whereas, if children are given choice, they can become leaders, mentors, and productive contributors to our changing world.
Though Megan seemed to be uninformed about the philosophy of democratic education (free schools), I found her own views in line with many of the innovations now occurring all over the world in relation to how we deal with our most valuable resource: children. With a dropout rate now at 30%, she added that it was way higher in the community she teaches in. She sees her role as encouraging enthusiasm for learning and participating. She is also involved in telling Harlem RBI’s story to fundraisers, families and many organizations so that the program can grow and develop within the real world context. Harlem RBI has now grown into a full blown charter school. The recent graduating class had a 97% college acceptance.
We both expressed our desire to bring the Youth Development programs now enacted in the public schools, together with many of us who see a broken public system spiraling out of control.
Megans’ bio from the website: Megan Demarkis, Director of Organizational Excellence, is responsible for the ongoing evaluation, codification and training processes that will ensure Harlem RBI’s capacity to sustain quality programs over time. In 2007, Megan was awarded the honor of serving as an After School Ambassador under the After School Alliance whose mission is to ensure that all youth have access to quality After School programs. Megan graduated from Bard College with a degree in Literature before moving to Venezuela to learn Spanish and work with youth. She is also a Teach for America alumna and taught bilingual 2nd grade in Washington Heights for three years. Prior to joining the Harlem RBI staff, Megan helped create the Teach for America Teacher Training Institute in the Bronx where she served for two years as the Director of Operations.She has also worked as an advisor for the New York City Teaching Fellows. Megan has completed certificate programs at Columbia University’s Institute for Not-for-Profit Management in Leadership Development and the Participatory Evaluation Institute through the CUNY Graduate School in collaboration with the Robert Bowne Foundation.
One of the things that has been a focus for me is how these children benefit from these programs (both free school and otherwise) and how they move on in life. Megan told me the story of Lucy, who came to her program when she was 11 years old. “Lucy would be getting into fights daily. With girls. With boys. She had a lot of anger and she expressed it physically. She was pretty much stapled to my side most of the summer. She was bounced out of every single public school she was a part of.”
With a lot of discussion and trying to figure out what was going on, Lucy has evolved to the point where she now attends Independence High School, which Megan described as a “last chance” which works with young people, but treats them with respect. Lucy now has created her own website which is focused on mentoring services for other children as well as being the first student to be employed as a youth worker within the Harlem RBI organization. Her strengths are in literacy and baseball and the students she seems most capable of reaching are the ones who have the same issues she faced when she entered the program. Megan expressed that all this came as a result of being able to do something public schools do not allow for. “Building a relationship over a longer period of time.”
It would seem that many of the alumni, after going to college, come back in summer to work as interns. They feel a sense of accountability and responsibility to help guide the next generation. Many, who start out thinking they want to work as law enforcement, instead, go on to studying social work, education or child psychology. “Above all,” she says, “Harlem RBI is a community based organization.” Through teamwork, which is learned through baseball, those values are transferred over to other peer interactions.
The power of teamwork and how to openly deal with conflict are some of the core values of Harlem RBI.
The classrooms at the charter school have 25 children, with 2 teachers and 2 classroom assistants all working together. Conflict is dealt with by a lot of “talking it out. Sitting down for as long as it takes. Trying to figure out what happened. What could have been done differently. Speak using ‘I’ statements, etc. It has been about 3 years since we have had a fight in the program,” she added. “A culture has been developed. So if you get into a physical fight, you sit out the (baseball) season. They can still come to other programs. It is about consequences.” Two rules: No fighting and no teasing.
Harlem RBI provides inner-city youth with opportunities to Play, Learn and Grow. I found that my meeting with Megan has opened yet another door to networking people together who are striving to make a real impact on children and venture into truly effective approaches to learning and teaching those of us who do not fit the mold of public education.