In the dimly lit gymnasium, Morton Patton’s voice echoes off the walls and envelops the group of 30 students doing sit-ups. As he walks between the students, peering at each one with his brown, beady eyes, he asks for more.
“I’m not going to tell you guys again,” Patton said. “The next person that slacks off on this exercise is going to make the whole class run sprints.”
The students groan, and one yells across the gym to his fellow classmates to “step it up.” Sweat glistens from their brows as they muster the strength to finish the last exercise.
From the rows of perfectly lined, evenly spaced students, one would think this group is in basic training for the Army – not an after school program in the Chicago Public School system.
“I’m running the show,” Patton said to the students. “This may be your school, but for the next hour, it is my house.”
For Patton, it is just another day at the office.
The after school program he runs, known as Proper Headstart in Training, is designed for CPS schools that want to do more to combat the obesity problem plaguing its students. The program’s timely as First Lady Michelle Obama has made fighting childhood obesity a national priority.
Patton mentors the health of students, aging from first to sixth grade, by offering exercise classes each week.
CPS is beginning to show a clear and concise plan in combating the obesity issue by hiring Patton. In fact, CPS seems to be initiating a head-on attack against obesity. Just last month, schools announced they would be taking sugary drinks and cereals off the menu. With a diet and exercise program the obesity problem may finally be beginning to subside – or at least be kept in control in some of these schools.
“These kids have no structure,” Patton said. “They’ll eat and eat and eat until someone tells them to stop and most of the time no one is there to tell them to stop.”
Lately, he has become worried about the continuity of the program, since state lawmakers are proposing to cut CPS’ budget. His program has operated in just a handful of schools, and comes at a time when physical education programs are facing cutbacks.
Monique Bond, the communications officer for CPS, said the deficit for the 2011 school year will be close to $1.2 billion. She said after-school programs are among the first programs to fact cuts.
“We would rather cut these programs than teacher salaries,” Bond said. “State funding just does not allow us to afford these programs.”
Raised in Chicago’s inner city, Patton understands many of the difficulties that came along with being in the CPS system. He grew up in some of the city’s worst areas, bouncing from the toughest projects – Cabrini Green and Ida B. Wells. But he shares his experiences in order to motivate youth.
As the founder and director, he has been running the program successfully throughout Chicago since 2001.
During the weekly session, Patton runs the class much like a boot camp. When he walks into the room the children automatically give him their utmost attention. He tends to begin most of his classes by having the children stretch. His deep voice resonates with the students – all is quiet except for the echo of his voice. He commands – they follow.
“I don’t know what it is about him,” said Maureen Jamison, a mother of one of the students. “They just listen to him.”
After Patton finishes several exercises, he makes the class more fun and interesting for the students by playing games. During this particular class, the students are told they will be racing each other.
“Aw man,” said Torre Carter, a fourth grader in the program. “Everyone knows I’m the fastest here. No one can beat me.”
Several students quietly nodded in unison – clearly, he was the undeniable running champion of the group.
Patton is optimistic that Proper Headstart in Training program will continue. He will try to sell the idea of the after-school program to local churches and other private schools in the area.
Photos and video by Miles Maftean.
Article curtsey of Columbia Feature’s Blog