BOSTON — On one recent morning in Boston Common, a group of elementary school students hit tennis balls as the July sun heated the court and made the service lines shimmer.
Nearby, others gathered in the shade of an elm tree, reading Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hatches the Egg.” Their kiddie-sized tennis rackets lay in a pile nearby.
Tenacity, the nonprofit tennis-and-literacy project behind these activities, is serving 5,000 Boston students this summer with half- and full-day programs and camps around the city.
The $4.5 million program is funded mostly by private donations and government grants.
And founder Ned Eames, a former pro-tennis player, says demand for Tenacity is growing. The program is planning to expand, doubling its services over the next five years.
“We’re doubling the number of kids and raising the bar to college completion, so it’s ambitious and it’s challenging but it’s fun,” Eames said.
Active in Boston Public Schools since 1999, 1,000 students at five schools now take part in Tenacity’s programming. By 2019, Eames plans for Tenacity to be teaching at 10 more schools, including Timilty Middle School, Rogers Middle School and Mildred Avenue K-8.
The program introduces elementary school students to tennis as part of their physical education curriculum, then adds in literacy and life skills classes when the students reach middle school. That means extra time on reading comprehension, vocabulary lessons, homework help and mentorship when applying for high school.
Families get home visits from Tenacity staff, and students also participate in field trips.
“This curriculum combined with the relationships that get formed between our staff and the kids over a period of time is leading our middle school academy kids to be outperforming their peers,” Eames said.
In high school, students get help with homework, life skills workshops and college and financial aid applications.
Eames says 95 percent of Tenacity students graduate high school, compared to 66 percent district-wide.
On Boston Common, as these 6- to 10-year-olds sound out big words and reach for lobs, high school graduation may seem a long ways off. But their coaches, like Tutu Ekpebor, know it’s right around the corner.
Ekpebor started with Tenacity as a 12-year-old somewhat suspicious of sports. Today she’s a rising sophomore at Wittenberg University in Ohio, where she studies international business and plays on the tennis team.
“As a child I felt like there were a lot of people who were out there for me and who wanted to back me up in so many ways” Ekpebor said.
This summer, the Roxbury-native is a tennis instructor with Tenacity.
“I want to do the same for every child here in Boston because it gets difficult,” she said. “There’s a lot of struggles with the urban youth. I was one of those kids once, and I just want them to know that there’s people there for them.”
Laura Amico is editor of WBUR’s Learning Lab project.