After the school bell rings – then what?

by | Nov 4, 2013 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Several times a week, she drives to her mother’s house, trudges down to the basement and carries up drums, violins, a trumpet, easels, paints, brushes and art supplies. Then she loads them in her subcompact and heads off to a Detroit school— where she unpacks the drums, the violins, the trumpet, the art supplies, drags them inside and says hello to dozens of eager kids.

Welcome to after-school activities, 2013.

Do It Yourself.

Lena Pernell is only 29, but she’s old enough to remember when public schools offered all kinds of extracurricular choices. “Dance, music, ROTC, sports; if you wanted to join it, they had it,” she says.

That’s how I remember it, too. But today, thanks to budget cuts on every level, a Detroit public school is lucky to have much going on once the last bell has rung.

Yes, certain sports endure. But if you recall the days of the ham radio club, the home economics club, the chemistry club and the jazz band ensemble, you haven’t been to a public school recently.

An educational road show

Pernell, an energetic young woman, was motivated to take action four years ago, after picking up her 6-year-old cousin from McColl Elementary.

“We were, maybe, five minutes late, and he was just sitting there waiting in the street,” she said. “All the kids were gone. All the teachers were gone. The doors were locked. He was left there to fend for himself.”

Pernell, like me, remembers the days when schools — especially high schools — were hives of activity long after sunset during winter months, with games, music, creativity, learning. There’s a serious price to pay — beyond nostalgia — for losing those options.

“Studies show that the hours between 3 and 6 are when kids are most likely to get into trouble on the streets,” she correctly noted. “So that’s when we do our programs.”

Her program is part of “Real Life. My Music.” — a traveling road show of music, dance and arts instruction that she makes available to any public school that is interested.

Her teachers? She found them on Craigs­list or volunteer websites, and they work for free — out of the same love for children that Pernell has.

Her instruments and supplies? They were donated or purchased.

Her schools? They have included Vista Maria in Dearborn Heights, Michigan Technical Academy in Redford Township and upcoming Southeastern High School in Detroit.

“I could have so many more,” she lamented, “but they say they need to have someone around to patrol the halls and lock up after we are finished. And there’s nobody there.”

When I asked how much one employee might cost for those extra hours — for a year — she said, “Maybe $9,000.”

She said it as if she needed a million. Her program, she said, is a 501(c)3 charity, meaning donations are tax deductible.

You wonder whether we couldn’t pool our resources for something that simple.

‘My favorite moment’

Think about what goes on in the hours between school’s end and dinner. Kids hang around. Kids watch TV. Kids go on computers. It would be nice if they all did their homework. But the truth is, kids get bored. And bored kids — especially unsupervised bored kids — are bad news waiting to happen.

If you’re like me, you recall when there was always a school play, a musical group, a sports team, an arts program, a language club or some kind of “society” to fill the late-afternoon hours.

Pernell and her volunteers clear out classrooms to make room for dancing. They move desks and bring instruments to teach the joy of music. They set up easels and teach painting and fine arts.

“The best part is, after the 16-week program, we have a showcase,” Pernell says. “The kids get to demonstrate what they’ve been doing. You see the gratifying look on their faces. They feel like they’ve really accomplished something. They’re always nervous before and ecstatic afterward.

“That’s my favorite moment.”

Pernell does this from her heart. She holds a part-time job to pay her bills. She lives in a two-room apartment with her boyfriend and her child. “No basement for us,” she says, laughing.

Fortunately for Pernell, her mother keeps her doors open. What a shame when our schools can’t do the same.

For more information on “Real Life. My Music.” go to .

Contact Mitch Albom: Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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