At PS 256 in Bed-Stuy on a recent Saturday morning, about 20 children were trying to grab a basketball at the center of the court, and dunk it on the opposite end. The kids were divided into two groups, one wearing blue belts, and the other red.
A few minutes earlier four boys, two from each team, had made a beeline for the ball. Each pair tried to wrench the ball from the other’s hands. Soon everyone was running to the middle. An inevitable pile-up followed.
“Just get the ball, don’t try to kill each other for it,” screamed the group’s coach, Tony Fonville, dressed in baggy faded white jeans, a white t-shirt, and a blue turban.
In the ensuing chaos, a member of the red team snuck the ball, and scored. They instantly erupted in cheers. Samantha Mebane, 8, one of the two girls in the program, and a member of the blue team, shrugged her shoulders and began walking towards the benches at the side of the court.
“I’m done with this,” she said.
Fonville came racing across the room, and put his hand on Samantha’s shoulder. “Don’t be sad,” he said. “Remember, it is not just about winning together, but it is about losing together as well.”
When Samantha rejoined the blue team, she was smiling.
It was a typical moment for Fonville, an otherwise unemployed dad who started this basketball program last September with four other fathers as a labor of love to provide neighborhood kids aged 8 to 10 with some activity and exercise. The school provided the group with some basketballs, and Fonville purchased the rest with his own money.
The basketball program, which meets every Saturday for four hours, is unique in an underdeveloped neighborhood like Bed-Stuy, which also has one of the lowest-performing school districts in the city. An average after-school program in such a Brooklyn neighborhood can cost anywhere between $2,000 to $6,000 a year, according to the Wallace Foundation, a New York City-based organization that works towards providing after school programs in underdeveloped neighborhoods. A quarter of students citywide are not enrolled in any kind of afterschool program, according to the Afterschool Alliance, a non-profit organization created to ensure equal access to afterschool programs. Of these, 46 percent have indicated that they would participate if there were a program available in their area, also according to the Alliance. Elementary school students enrolled in afterschool programs are more likely to attend school regularly, and have higher aspirations for college, according to a 2007 UCLA National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing report.
“With this program they’re going to learn to have a direct conversation without cursing or to get into a violent motion,” said Fonville. “They’re going to learn to fight back if they need to protect themselves. If there’s anything I’m teaching, that is what I’m teaching.”
Fonville first met the group of fathers at a Parent Teacher Association Meeting before school began in September. Parents agreed that the school was in dire need of an afterschool program, and some expressed concerns over increased gang recruitment and violence in the neighborhood.
Shortly after the meeting Fonville, and four other fathers asked the principal of the school, Sharyn Hemphill, for help with the program. She told them she was unable to provide any funding. But she did find them time to use the gym, which is usually reserved for PTA meetings.
“This program has been amazing segue for other parents to get involved in the school,” said Hemphill. “It’s been a big help to the school. It’s a wonderful program to keep the kids focused. It’s a wonderful thing that everyone is able to work together.”
The program comes as a welcome relief for the school, which was on the verge of shutdown after it received an ‘F,” in the 2010-2011 academic year, according to Inside Schools, an independent research guide to schools in New York City. Basketball is another sign of the school’s changing fortunes, which was able to pull itself to an overall “B,” last year, largely due to the addition of a $400,000 science lab, Hemphill said.
Keeping children focused was the impetus for Fonville to start the program. He said he was concerned about local problems such as increasing obesity and underemployment, and especially by the escalating gang violence and deaths in his neighborhood.
Nationwide, homicide is the leading cause of death for teenagers aged 15 to 19, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In Bed-Stuy, 49 per 100,000 teenagers lose their lives to murder, compared to the citywide average of 20 per 100,000, also according to the Department. Fonville said he didn’t want to see his four boys become statistics.
“Mind you, some of these kids are going to rob a liquor store when they get to a certain age,” he said of the basketball group. “I can’t constantly keep watch on these kids, and if they’re not disciplined someone else will try to watch over them. Either the drug dealer will or the gangbanger will.”
“But a lot of them might actually do something,” he added. “And with this program they are starting to respect each other a lot more.”
In March, Fonville and the fathers took a group of 20 kids to watch some of the NBA’s international all-stars, public and private high schoolers from across the country, and American college students face-off in separate matches. The fathers pooled their money to purchase all-day passes for the kids.
“It was inspiring for them to see students from prestigious sports schools like Duke and Indiana play each other at that level,” said Fonville. “Our kids see them playing and can aspire to be in their shoes one day.
Fonville is the lead coach of the basketball group. The four other fathers alternate weekly shifts to attend the coaching sessions. Marquese Paige, one of the four, said he has been involved with school for more than seven years, but he said he had never seen parent involvement on such a level. As a student, Paige played football on the Canarsie High School team. He said he wished PS 256 had done something similar when his high-school aged son was a student there. His daughter now participates in the basketball group.
“Being able to coach these kids has been one of the greatest experiences,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to change it for anything in the world.”
Fonville’s wife, Natalie Fonville, is part of the group’s management. She handles the paperwork, which includes maintaining a blue binder with the attendance and health records of all their students. She also interacts with other parents and updates them on their kids’ progress, and maintains a website where the kids are updated about practice sessions.
“At first I didn’t think I’d get so involved,” said Natalie Fonville. “But my boys say they want to be NBA players, so of course I thought they need a basketball program for that. You do whatever it takes for your child to achieve their goal.”
The Saturday practice session meanwhile was nearing its end. The last exercise was an obstacle course. Natalie Fonville, who was wearing a black headscarf, a gray t-shirt, and black track-bottoms, and her husband had placed orange cones in a triangular pattern on both sides of the court. The objective for a player on each team was to run and touch all cones in the triangle, grab the ball placed in front of the hoop, and shoot. And then repeat it again. And like before, the team, which had all its members, complete the exercise first would win.
Shouts of “hustle,” “rebound,” and “run,” echoed across the room.
Once again it was down to the wire. The red team had taken a narrow lead. But the last player on the blue team was catching up. The red team was one shot away from victory. But their last player, Tyshawn Williams, 9, and barely four feet off the ground, was struggling to score. He had already missed three shots. He missed a couple more, and began looking anxiously toward his teammates.
“I’m trying,” he muttered out in exasperation.
Some members on his team began to boo him. Ankhier Parker, 16, one of the high schoolers that occasionally helps out with program, and a fellow team member, stepped to the front, and bellowed, “Shut up and don’t say anything.”
“Just let him calm down and shoot,” he added.
He did. And the red team was victorious again. They jumped in the air, chest-bumped, and slapped each other’s hands. Basketballs were flying furiously around the room.
Fonville stepped in and yelled for everyone to calm down, get some food, and assemble in the center of the gym. Within seconds, most of the balls were put away. Some kids lined up to get plates of pasta that Natalie had prepared at home. Others cleared out the cones placed all over the gym. Soon everyone began to gather in the center of the room. A couple of kids continued to dribble their basketballs.
Antonio Fonville, the couple’s son and a fourth grader, grabbed his plate, kept it to the side and dropped to the floor.
“I know it’s always been my dream to be a professional basketball player,” said Antonio. “But, phew! I gotta take a break.”
Fonville’s next step is to obtain a Department of Education vendor’s license, which would allow him to get paid about $5,000 a month to run the program, as well as to take it to other schools. And he wants the kids to be good enough to participate in a junior league.
“I just want them to have fun,” he said. “That’s what they’re here for.”