Afterschool Spotlight: New York City Police Athletic League

by Robert Abare

Since its founding on the eve of World War I, New York City’s Police Athletic League (PAL) has been a daily presence in the lives of New York City youth. Today, it serves upwards of 40,000 children a year at 24 sites spanning all five of the city’s boroughs, providing afterschool and summer programming that includes healthy meals and snacks, as well as ample opportunity for exercise and sports.

What began decades ago as an effort to provide children with a safe place to play now provides tools and opportunities designed to set youth on a path to a healthy lifestyle.

“Sports have always been a core area for us,” says Marcel Braithwaite, director of center operations at PAL. “And we make a concerted effort with sports, not just for the kids who rise to the top and are candidates for high school sports, but for all kids. We make sports accessible to everyone, with a curriculum designed around teaching fundamentals– sportsmanship, how to play the game right, problem-solving, teamwork – things people don’t always associate with sports.”

In 2010, PAL’s health and fitness program took on an even more deliberate focus when the organization partnered with a local public school in Harlem to create the PAL Physical Education Program (PEP). Supported by a grant from the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program, PAL PEP began carefully measuring students’ progress toward specific fitness goals. PAL staffers led students through what amounted to a fitness pre-test at the beginning of the year, gauging individual participants’ fitness across a series of measures, including body mass index, cardio-vascular capacity, foot speed and other measures from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education standards. Subsequent measurements throughout the year allow PAL to track participants’ progress.

Over the four-year life of the grant, students regularly exceeded the state-recommended 150 weekly minutes of physical education, doubling the time they had spent in PE before the program began. “While other students around the city continued to struggle with obesity and youth fitness issues,” Braithwaite says, “in 2012-2013, 77 percent of our participants were either in the Healthy Fitness Zone for cardiovascular health, or had increased their laps run by 15 percent.” The program’s health and nutrition components also led to an 18.5 percent increase in the number of participants who reported eating fruit two or more times per day, and vegetables three or more times.

The grant ended in 2014, but PAL has continued key components of the program in Harlem, and Braithwaite says other PAL sites are following suit — tracking students’ progress toward specific fitness goals, and providing healthy meals and snacks every day. PAL now develops monthly menus that include healthy sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, milk and juice. Different PAL sites serve children of different ages, so meals are carefully tailored to the nutritional needs of particular age groups. Youth in summer programs get three full meals a day.

Braithwaite says the reaction to the program’s success has been inspiring. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama visited PAL’s Harlem site as part of the launch of her “Let’s Move” campaign to encourage youth fitness. “We’ve also seen interest from corporations interested in supporting healthy lifestyles and habits, and physical activity,” he says. For example, as part of its Worldwide Day of Play initiative in 2015, Nickelodeon offered PAL a spot at its New York City festival and invited PAL to contribute to a digital toolkit it compiles for youth programs seeking ideas and instructions for fun and healthy activities for children.

As Braithwaite wrote in a letter to Harlem parents, “We can proudly point to PEP as a proven model that helped students exceed PE standards, giving them skills and habits that can last a lifetime.”

© 2013 Afterschool Alliance