TRACY — The playground at North School is a busy place.
Kids play basketball or kick soccer balls. Some use the picnic tables as study hall. Others snack beneath a shade tree.
Principal Fred Medina roams the grounds, always observing.
Recess? Not at 4:30 in the afternoon. The 160 or so children still on campus are members of the Tracy Boys & Girls Club. The club serves more than 700 children daily at six sites.
They are there because they want to be, because their parents want them to be and because it beats the heck out of being home alone from the time school ends about 2:30 p.m. until their parents get home after 6, depending upon the traffic backup on Interstate 580.
Why write about what transpires each afternoon on a school campus in Tracy? Because this same kind of program is coming to Modesto, long overdue and desperately needed.
Modesto's Boys & Girls Club will begin activities in the Sylvan Unified School District's Sylvan and Coleman F. Brown elementary campuses in the fall.
Like Tracy's club, the one in north Modesto will have its own full-time employees running the program while using school facilities and staff in a collaboration that benefits both.
Tracy's club has made a huge impact on a city whose population grew from 18,400 in 1980 to more than 83,000 today. Tracy formed its Boys & Girls Club in the mid-1980s. The program expanded to North School six years ago, and Medina has seen a huge change in the overall atmosphere.
"You always hear that it takes a village to raise our children," Medina said. "The more organizations involved, the better. We (the school system) can't take on all of the programs needed."
When the school day ends, the Boys & Girls Club employees and volunteers take over, working with teachers and other school staff members who stay on to help until their work day ends. Together, they create programs the kids want to be part of academics through innovative homework help, sports teams, nutrition and other activities.
Medina said the club has been so popular that it becomes his best leverage against bad student behavior: Act up during the school day and risk participation in the after-school program.
"I'd rather suspend a kid from the club today than from school," he said. "We use that as a buffer."
The benefits are noticeable. Discipline problems are now rare. The club emphasizes respect among its members. No respect, no participation as compared to the old-school model of suspension from something some of the kids really didn't like anyway, meaning classwork.
Every session begins with the Power Hour, designated for tutoring and homework. Missing that means missing out on the next two hours of physical activities and enrichment programs.
Staff and faculty used to see kids wearing clothing and items that made them walking billboards for street gangs. No more, Medina said.
Combined, these factors create a better learning environment during the school day.
"Grades, homework and test scores the club kids perform better," Medina said.
And because the kids are busy, they aren't, well, busy.
"The juvenile crime rate dropped dramatically in the (neighborhood)," said Medina, who before the club came to the school had done a ride-along with Tracy police. "At 3 p.m., all these calls started coming in kids throwing rocks at mailboxes, kicking over garbage cans all these incidents began happening right after school got out. This (the club) keeps them out of trouble."
Tracy police Chief Gary Hampton is a big believer in the Boys & Girls Club. He spent 10 years as an officer in Tracy before becoming Oakdale's chief in 2003. When he took the same job in Turlock 2½ years later, he tried to create interest in a Boys & Girls Club for that city, having seen the impact of the one in Tracy.
It didn't materialize for a variety of reasons. Now, back in Tracy as chief, he serves on the Boys & Girls Club's board.
"The benefit is there," Hampton said. "Tracy has always had a migration of people from the Bay Area. They live here, but practice their professions in the Bay Area. Consequently, many kids are latchkey kids. Crimes happened from 3 to 6 p.m. The Boys & Girls Club fills that niche with homework, the teen centers and physical activities."
His department contributes $30,000 a year collected in asset seizures from drug arrests to support the program. The school sites also contribute both financially and through the use of facilities. The club gets a huge boost each year from Tracy resident Keena Turner, the former San Francisco 49ers linebacker who stages a fund-raiser golf tourney each year, recruiting current and former NFL players to participate. It has raised more than $2 million for the club since its inception 17 years ago. And the organization raises money through other events, including an auction.
Rob Pane, the Boys & Girls Club's director of operations, said part of the program's success lies in the numbers of former school students who return to work as volunteers. Some, such as North School site director Genaro Cuevas Jr., have gone on to become full-time Boys & Girls Club employees.
"Junior was a 'club kid,' " Pane said.
Between paid staff, teachers and school staff, and those donating their time, the kids get the attention they need.
"We have a 20-to-1 ratio to staff," Pane said.
Some years, they've planted vegetable gardens, teaching the children how to grow food while encouraging healthier eating habits.
"We're in an area that's all agriculture, and yet they go to the liquor store to buy their breakfast?" Pane said.
Wednesday, a group sampled butternut squash some tasting it for the very first time.
They've filled bags for a food bank as part of a community service element. They've been involved in recycling and cleanup projects through the Torch Club, and the Smart Girls program teaches hygiene, and drug and sex awareness.
It doesn't take the children long to realize the benefits.
"I go to the club to get help from the teachers help with my math," said Priya Chande, an eighth-grader.
More important, what would they be doing after school if the club didn't exist?
"Not doing the right things," Priya added.
"Bad stuff, probably," said her friend, eighth-grader Catherine Keys. "Running the streets. That what I did last year, when I wasn't here. We (she and Priya) were hanging out with people we shouldn't have been with. The Boys & Girls Club helps you not do that."
Instead, they have a place to go, things to do and help younger students by coaching cheerleaders.
Their afternoons have structure and a purpose, something that is coming soon to children in north Modesto as well long overdue and desperately needed.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.