Success for Kids

Gautama MehtaSeptember 13, 2018The Body in BalanceFeatures
Success for Kids

In PS/MS 183, an underfunded public school out in Far Rockaway, New York, third graders participate in a program called SFK, which stands for either “Success for Kids” or “Spirituality for Kids”—the kids aren’t really sure which.

Every week, the children, in classes of 25, are taught something called “Social and Emotional Learning,” a series of incredibly simple and basic lessons on behavioral awareness and self-esteem. In SFK doctrine, every decision is made based on two contradictory voices in one’s head, the Guide and the Opponent. The job of the Opponent is to challenge the chooser by obscuring the “Inner Light.” The terminology has changed over the decade since SFK’s founding; the Opponent and Guide used to be the Badguy and Goodguy, as well as the Me-Voice and the We-Voice.

The lesson plan, a strict 12-class curriculum from which teachers may not deviate, is written by a crew of curriculum writers in California. The same curriculum is taught in many SFK programs around the world. When I asked Venessa Giordano, SFK’s program director for New York City, about the curriculum, she told me she had just given a lesson to Wall Street bankers that was nearly identical to what the kids were taught.

SFK, Success for Kids, formerly Spirituality for Kids, is an international non-profit organization (, and its programs are integrated into school curricula in at-risk neighborhoods. When I asked Venessa about the name change, she explained that “spirituality” doesn’t translate well, and that while they had the old name, they spent most of their time explaining that they weren’t a religious organization.

SFK does fantastic work empowering poor children in its various locations. In Israel, they run a program called “Kids Creating Peace,” in which the SFK curriculum is taught to Israeli children in Hebrew and Palestinian kids in Arabic, and then the two groups are brought together for a summer camp through which the kids on both sides, some of whom have been brought up with deep hatred towards the other, learn to appreciate the similarities between the two groups, and help to dissolve the hatred. There is no question that this organization does truly good work.

Many of the third-graders from PS 183 have never been to Manhattan, or seen a movie in a theater, according to the teachers there. Eight kids from this school were taken to London two summers ago for an SFK summer camp. They love every minute of SFK. They memorize the literature, and apply the values to their lives. A few weeks ago, after a lesson on bullying, one boy stood up in class and announced, on his own initiative, that he had been a bully before, and that he was very sorry, and he apologized to anyone in the class he had bullied before.

The school librarian, Rebecca Ovadia, found out about this program when it started, and began helping out, and finally decided to start an “SFK Club” at the school, in which she and the kids focused on community service. In the club, which I also visited, the students—many of whom were probably living on welfare themselves—had raised $175 through a bake sale to benefit orphans in Malawi, then started a food drive through which a thousand cans of food were donated to a local food pantry, and through clothing drives donated five hundred articles of clothing to two churches with Haitian congregations in the aftermath of the January earthquake.

Personally, I was shocked that SFK could work. The lessons are taught through abstract demonstrations, such as a unit on friendship in which students were told that a cup represented them, and water represented good qualities. Water was poured into a student’s cup until it couldn’t hold any more. Did this mean there was no more room for good qualities? Of course not—he could simply cut a hole in the bottom of his cup and a friend would hold their cup under his, and there was room for more water.

Or another—in a lesson on taking initiative, and facing challenges, students were asked to play a game in which a balloon had to be kept up in the air without touching the ground. This was easy and almost boring, but what about when there were many more balloons? The game became harder and a lot more fun, demonstrating the principle that challenge can be a good thing.

If I had just read or heard about these simple, abstract demonstrations, I would imagine that kids would never take the ideas seriously to the extent that they do. What relevance does this game with balloons have to the real world, and the issues that SFK claims to deal with, “high-risk behaviors, such as early sexual activity, non-attendance, depression, violence, and drug use?” Somehow, the curriculum worked magically and wonderfully at PS 183. But at another class I visited, it didn’t appear to do the same job.

At the New York City Department of Probation in downtown Manhattan, Daniel Tuttle, a charismatic young SFK graduate, teaches an SFK class himself. Here, juveniles on probation, all much older than the third graders in Far Rockaway, have the option to forego their community service and instead attend the SFK class once a week. Before class begins, Daniel warns me: “It’ll be foul. And I might get foul too, but that’s the only way I can relate to them.”

Sitting in on the class, it is obvious that none of the students want to be there. It’s a smaller class, only 15-20 students on average, and fewer were there on the day I attended. The incentive offered for behaving in class, and doing the exercises, is getting let out early. The punishment for not obeying the teachers is losing the credit gained by attending class. Only a couple of the students actually did participate with any interest, whereas the rest sat glumly for the duration of the lesson, barely staying awake (two of the students actually did fall asleep) and never answering questions.

The ugliest part of the SFK philosophy revealed itself in this lesson. “What is the goal of life?” Daniel asks, then answers himself. “Success.”

This was reiterated in a video he showed called “Karma Ghost,” an animation about a man who collects an invisible Karma Ghost every time he does something bad, like littering, or shoplifting, or tailgating, or vandalizing. Finally, the combined effect of all the Karma Ghosts pushes his car off a cliff and he dies. The lesson is simple: everything you do has a consequence, so if you want material gain, you must do good things. If you want to get off probation, do community service. If you want credit for showing up to the SFK class, appease the teacher. If you want to achieve the goal of success, help other people and collect karma.

I don’t know whether this same philosophy prevailed in the other classrooms I visited. The curriculum is one that is unilaterally applied to all kids whom SFK teaches, with miniscule variations. When I visited these classes, I wondered whether these children deserved more individual attention and respect than that. Why can’t the teachers have the freedom to get to know their group of students and decide, based on this experience, what is right to teach them?

Tabitha Strauss, an enthusiastic volunteer at PS 183, pointed out that the teachers do have some input on the curriculum. They give periodical reports to the curriculum writers. She proudly added that the teachers were the ones responsible for adding the bullying lesson into this year’s curriculum.

What is the SFK philosophy? Every teacher I spoke to seemed to have a different idea of what they were teaching. For Rebecca it was about values of community service, for Tabitha it was about empowering children with basic self-esteem and confidence, and for Daniel it was about teaching the dropouts of society how to make the choices that will eventually better their lives.

Later Daniel told me a story. One day he was in the elevator after class when a boy who used to be a student came up to him and told him that today was his last day on probation, and that the values he was taught in SFK were what got him out. He made the choices that he did because of Daniel’s class. And I believe that that one incident is reason enough to provide this class to every child who might be helped by it.

Gautama Mehta is 15 years old, an avid reader and writer, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.