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The Fifth Dimension Brings a Touch of Magic to Kids’ Afternoons

RIchard Tran helps Serena with a game called The Scruffs.

Richard Tran, a Whittier College student, helps a child with a computer game in the Fifth Dimension area of the Whittier Boys and Girls Club.

Whittier, Calif. — Kids are swarming around Richard Tran as they come back upstairs after having their snacks, “wizard’s assistants” are lobbing questions at him over the kids’ heads, and the purple clipboard with the all-important game sign-up sheet is nowhere to be seen. But Mr. Tran maintains an almost magical calm.

Somehow he wills the clipboard to appear, greets several kids who have just arrived, answers a dozen questions about everything from computer games to construction paper, and figures out why one grinning eight-year-old boy is hiding behind him—all in the time it would take you or me just to catch our breath. It’s enough to make you think that there really is a wizard behind the Fifth Dimension program here on the second floor of the Whittier Boys and Girls Club—just as the kids have always been told—and that the wizard could as easily be Mr. Tran as any of the other Whittier College students here this afternoon.

In plain terms, the Fifth Dimension program brings about 16 Whittier students to the Boys and Girls Club four afternoons a week to work with kids aged 7 to 12 on reading, writing, and social skills. But of course if you explained it that way to kids, they’d be about as interested in the Fifth Dimension as in a textbook’s ISBN.

So the Fifth Dimension lures them up from the basketball courts and game tables downstairs by offering computer games, a story line based on the mysterious, unseen wizard, and the chance to work through the games with  wizard’s assistants—confident, caring college students who know the kids’ names, praise them regularly, and create a sense of community in which the kids help each other out and applaud each other for every success.

The program was brought here in 1993 by Don Bremme, an education professor at the college who still oversees it. “When I came to Whittier, the club had some computers but it needed some undergraduates to work with the kids.” Local parents, many of them Hispanic, use the Boys and Girls Club “as a low-cost source of after-school care”—annual membership costs just $15, and the fee can be waived—and the goal of the Fifth Dimension is to extend the amount of time the kids spend on academic development—but in a way that the kids enjoy.

Hence the computer games, the wizard story line—the college students say that even they have never seen the wizard—and the maze in the middle of the room through which kids can advance their avatars by completing various computer games. “Lots of reading and writing is embedded in the games,” Mr. Bremme says. “The rule is, we help as little as possible but as much as necessary.” A small local foundation supports the program with enough money to hire the college students every year (they’re paid about $7,000 each).

“It’s a fresh start for a lot of the kids,” says Mr. Tran, a graduate student in education at the college who is one of the program’s coordinators. He’s standing by the maze with the purple clipboard and watching a girl who has just completed enough games to be transformed into a dinosaur, for which she gets to wear a cape with scales down the back. “A lot of our kids have really hard lives at home,” he says, and many of them aren’t doing well in school either. But up in the Fifth Dimension rooms they’re always welcome to sign up for games or hang out and watch as others play. There are two game periods every afternoon, followed by time in which kids can read with a wizard’s assistant or use the computers to practice writing.

Jacob Novick, a Whittier College student, talks with a club member by the maze.

There’s always a waiting list to play games, Mr. Tran says, sitting down to help a girl play “The Scruffs.” She introduces herself to me as Serena and then reads the directions out loud—the game involves finding objects amid the clutter of the Scuffs’ household. Serena locates hidden baseballs, pizza slices, and even a zeppelin, with only occasional hints from Mr. Tran—and those he makes into another learning opportunity by drawing a compass and telling her to look for the bat in the “super, super northeast.”

“Learning happens when a kid’s engaged in a goal-oriented activity,” Mr. Tran tells me later. “We have one kid, he’s special needs, and at school he gets dumbed-down homework. But here he’s an all star”—completing game after game, transforming himself from shape to shape as he advances through the maze. “I can’t imagine the names he gets called at school,” Mr. Tran says. “The high point for me is seeing a kid like him really open up and be a really esteemed member of the community, or see students who struggled with reading or spelling read or write a whole sentence.”

The low point, he says, is that sooner or later all the kids disappear—they  stop coming because they’ve outgrown the program or they’ve moved away or something’s happened at home. That’s a kind of magic that’s not as welcome. But at least the college students know that they’ve helped the kids while they could, and that the kids will remember that, in the magical way kids always do, even years from now.

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