By Maria Clark
It is lunchtime recess at P.S. 50 in Harlem. A kid in a blue sweatshirt practices his karate kicks on anyone who comes close. Kids throw basketballs at each other and occasionally at the hoop. A boy sends a large rubber ball flying, almost hitting Keith Jones in the head.
“Yo, my dude, you just kick that ball?” Jones, 23, asked the boy. “You know my name? It’s Mr. K. You going to apologize?”
The boy nodded and mumbled he was sorry.
Keith Jones, or Mr. K., is a recess specialist for the Recess Enhancement Program at Asphalt Green, a non-profit organization that works with 23 New York City public schools to make recess active, safe and fun. “They are here eight hours everyday. They get an hour of break. We should use this time to teach them,” Jones said, as he walked across the noisy playground.
Jones visits five schools in Harlem and the South Bronx twice a week during recess, where he works with a group of about 15 third through fifth graders. Recess is spent teaching games like Wizards, Giants, and Elves, an elaborate version of tag. The group is then expected to teach it to others on the playground. As kids learn the games, recess becomes more orderly and inclusive.
The school normally selects the students based on their leadership skills. But sometimes Jones gets to choose. “I look out for the quiet girl on the playground. The loudmouth, the kid who thinks he’s tough but actually isn’t,” he said.
Jones stops in front of 11 fifth graders lined up in two rows from tallest to shortest. They stare up at him, smiling. “Mr. K can we play football today?” one said.
“Can the game involve running?” said another.
Jones looms over the kids. His baggy sweat pants and leather jacket make him look even larger. “I’m happy to see you guys,” he said as he took a head count. “Where’s Bubblegum? Is he in trouble?”
“I think he’s at the nurse,” someone answered.
Jones raises his voice when appropriate. He shows anger and sympathy when he sees fit. “To do this job you got to take on many personalities. One day I might approach these kids acting like a joker. They might not relate to that. So the next day I will try a different tactic,” he said.
The next day at P.S. 385 in the South Bronx, a girl rushes into the gym crying because a teacher told her she didn’t have the leadership qualities to participate in Jones’ recess group. Jones walks past four runaway hula-hoops to the girl who is being consoled by her best friend. He leans down, and says, “Listen to me. Of course you are a leader, you both are. You help each other out when you need it, right?”
The girl calms down a little bit.
“You can’t mouth off at your teachers though,” he said. “If she doesn’t want you participating I can’t do anything about that.”
The girl stands against the wall and watches the game. Soon, the other kids offer to teach her the rules of Wizards, Giants, and Elves. In that small corner of that loud and chaotic gym, the game continued successfully throughout recess.
Cindy Guilarte, the dean at P.S. 385, said her students have shown some change during the recess hour. “The students relate well to Keith. He does a nice job of setting high standards for them to follow if they desire to remain in the program,” Guilarte said in an email.
Mona Silfen, the assistant principal at P.S. 146, has also seen a positive outcome. “He understands the children in the program and relates to them. Keith is nurturing but firm with the children,” Silfen said.
Jones describes himself as a reformed bad kid. He was the clever kid, the one with the best jokes, the one teachers said had so much potential. He settled down once he moved to Rockland County during middle school. “My basketball coach, he was sort of my mentor at the time, told me I had to make something of my life,” Jones said.
Back at P.S. 50, Jones’ group of recess leaders are tired from playing Touchdown, a freeze tag version of football. Bubblegum, a skinny kid with a perfectly round head, has emerged from the nurse’s office healthy enough to outrun all the others to reach the fence first.
Jones called the kids to gather around him. “I have a real problem with you people calling each other names,” Jones told them.
Instead of responding to him, they begin talking to each other. “I’m sorry about that, Jasmine,” one of the boys said.
“Now that’s what I want to hear,” Jones noted.
“Yeah I’m sorry about that, man,” said another boy.
“It’s okay,” another answered.
Amends made, all hands go in a circle as they shouted in unison, “ One, two, three, R E P!”
“Bye Mr. K., we’ll see you Friday!” they tell him.
As he walked towards his bus stop, Jones talked about all the jobs he has had in his lifetime. A stint at the Red Lobster, a few months at Staples, and a job at a movie theater, to name a few.
A summer job as a camp counselor when he was a freshman in college made Jones consider working with kids as a lifetime option. He has worked for Asphalt Green for the past three years as a football coach, a counselor at their summer camp, a teacher at their afterschool program and as a recess specialist.
“I realized I loved working with people and, hey, kids are people,” he said. “My job is to teach games, what’s better than that?”