Students Use Leadership Course to Launch Afterschool Program

Grace Zhou is a junior public policy major and Global Health Certificate student from Cleveland, Ohio.  In fall of 2010, Grace and a fellow Duke student, Alexandra MacLeish, founded an organization that works in Durham to inspire positive social behaviors through play.

(more information on ELI and the Hart Leadership Program)
Q: What is ASPIRE?

A: ASPIRE stands for After-School Programs Involving Recreational Enrichment. Alex and I have created an eight-week, games-based curriculum to teach positive social behaviors to at-risk youth in Durham. Every week, Duke volunteers play three playground games or sports with the kids that emphasize a certain theme such as leadership, cooperation or honesty. Last semester, we worked with 20 elementary school students at Lyon Park Community Center and 60 students at E.K. Powe Elementary School.  This semester we have 15 committed volunteers, many of whom are Duke athletes on varsity or club teams.

Q: How did ASPIRE start?

A: ASPIRE began as a project in Tony Brown’s PPS144s Changemaker Leadership class, which is a course offered in ELI [Enterprising Leadership Initiative].  Alex and I were both interested in education policy, specifically educational issues in Durham. After speaking with various educators and administrators in Durham Public Schools, Alex and I identified negative behaviors as a major problem in classrooms that was relatively unaddressed.  The course helped us to translate our promising idea into a credible one, and we pilot tested ASPIRE at E.K. Powe Elementary to see if there was truly a need and potential for impact. With positive feedback from leadership at E.K. Powe and the first group of kids we worked with, we knew this was something we wanted to grow and work on beyond the course. 

Q: How did your major in public policy affect the process of developing ASPIRE?

A: Well, starting-up ASPIRE was definitely hard work!  Alex and I realized throughout Tony’s course that creating an impactful initiative involves identifying the specific social issue, crafting a sound theory of change, engaging multiple stakeholders and creating metrics for assessing the program.  My major had helped me develop the critical thinking and analysis skills that the shaping of ASPIRE demanded. Alex and I researched the impact of constructive play on children and other organizations pursuing this strategy. We also met with over 20 stakeholders such as Sam Miglarese, David Epstein, and the principal of E.K. Powe. Finally, we formed partnerships with our sites, the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership and a national program, Playworks, which specializes in constructive play.

Q: What is unique about ASPIRE?  

A: ASPIRE is really distinct in two ways.  First, it uses a games-based curriculum.  A lot of after-school programs emphasize academics and tutoring, often at the expense of play time.  Alex and I believed (and a lot of educational experts confirmed) that play is crucial for helping children learn positive social behaviors and for bolstering academic performance. ASPIRE is also unique because it provides a flexible volunteer opportunity for Duke students. Varsity athletes have had the chance to serve as mentors and role models through the program.

Q: What impact do you hope ASPIRE can have, especially in an era when schools have shifted toward more testing and less play time?

A: We talk about these issues, and we’re not necessarily advocating a policy change, but trying to work with circumstances as they are. That’s why we work with afterschool programs. Playing and learning how to interact with others are integral to being a kid. When we followed up with the afterschool coordinators they said they have seen positive changes in a lot of the kids and an understanding of the messages we were teaching. When we were on break during the holidays, the kids at E.K Powe asked to play the same games.

Q: With your graduation a year away, what do you see in the future for ASPIRE?

A: I hope to see ASPIRE expand to other elementary schools and community centers and continue to provide quality programming at E.K. Powe and Lyon Park. Sustainability is a big priority for us. We hope to recruit more underclassmen volunteers. We were lucky to receive the Ashoka Youth Venture Grant that helped us pay for volunteer training materials from Playworks, and sports equipment such as soccer and basketballs. As a Duke chartered organization, we’ll receive some funding, but we have very low operation costs.

Q: How has this experience affected you?

A: I’m unsure what my post-graduation plans will be; I’m not sure if I will work in education or education policy. When I came to Duke I was pre-med and I was very focused just on academics. But going through the process of starting ASPIRE has inspired me to do things I am more passionate about and take on more leadership roles at Duke and in the Durham community.

If you're interested in volunteering with ASPIRE or want to learn more contact Grace Zhou at