Grades-To-Play Motivation Propels Some Boston Student-Athletes

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The Play Ball! middle school football championship was a big moment for Narayan Jones. At White Stadium in Jamaica Plain, his parents, Monica Cannon-Jones and Anthony Jones, were bundled up against the bite of a cold, clear November afternoon.

“He loves football,” Cannon-Jones said. “If he could sleep football, he would.”

There is a sense of purpose about Cannon-Jones. She uses words like “responsibility” and “schoolwork” more often than “passes” and “defense.” Play Ball! funds sports for 1,000 students in Boston’s middle schools, including the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, where Narayan is in the eighth grade.

Monica Cannon-Jones and her son, Narayan Jones, an eighth-grader at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Monica Cannon-Jones and her son, Narayan Jones, an eighth-grader at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

True to its name, middle school isn’t a beginning or an end. It’s a time of transition. This spring, Cannon-Jones said football provided Narayan with a sense of focus at a time in his life that is filled with distractions.

“Girls," Cannon-Jones said, with a big sigh and a laugh. "A lot of distractions. It can be hard for students especially at the middle school age. That’s when you kind of figure out which way you’re going to go — if you’re going to keep doing your work or slack off with your friends, and so I think Play Ball! gives them that motivation to stay on the right track.”

Getting On Track

But not everyone starts on the right track.

In the six months we’ve been following these stories, we've met a lot of kids like Narayan. Kids who are on the right track flock to the microphone — like high school senior Sara Centeio, who kept apologizing for only knowing her GPA out to two decimal points.

But there’s another side to the program. We wanted to talk to a student who didn't start off on the right path, a kid who really needed the tutoring centers operated by the Boston Scholar Athletes, the program that’s transforming sports in Boston's high schools. That kid turned out to be 6-foot-5 junior Jikhalil Smith.

At first, Jikhalil was shy and avoided eye contact. But when asked about becoming academically eligible to play basketball, he lit up.

"It was very important. Very,” he said. “Because I see it as, we don't got any big men, I'm the only big man on the team. If we ain't have no big men we would never have made it as far as we did.”

Boston Public Schools only require a 1.67 GPA — a low C — to play sports. But Jikhalil, who faces academic challenges that affect his reading comprehension, was getting Ds and Fs. After receiving help in one of Boston Scholar Athletes' learning centers (called zones) that included accommodations for his disability, Jikhalil earned an A average last semester.

Burke junior Jikhalil Smith (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Burke junior Jikhalil Smith (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“My mind state two years ago was, all right, come to school for my friends, to see my friends,” he said. “Now it's, all right, forget the friends, come to school to do my work. Come to school to get somewhere in life to take my mother out this neighborhood, away from all this drama.”

Linking Sports To Grades

Using athletics as motivation in the classroom is a common denominator between the Boston Scholar Athletes in the high schools and Play Ball! in the middle schools. Sports can push D and F students to pull their grades up. But the chance to play can also inspire students on the honor roll — like Narayan Jones — to stay there.

“I love football and I wouldn’t want to mess it up by not getting good grades in all my classes,” said Narayan, whose favorite subject is math.

Naryan's favorite sport and his favorite subject at the Frederick Middle School are intertwined in more ways than one. In 2011, his math teacher was also his football coach.

Math is also a favorite of Burke high schooler Jikhalil Smith. His coach, Megan Waterbury, is proud of her new star player.

“I think he just found his little niche, his little place, and he just really excelled at it,” she said.

"I love football and I wouldn’t want to mess it up by not getting good grades in all my classes."

Narayan Jones, eighth-grader

On The Court, Off The Streets

But finding one's niche at the Burke hasn't always been easy. The school has struggled for decades and was designated one of the state's under-performing "turnaround" schools. It received a nearly $50 million renovation in 2008 after a piece of ceiling memorably fell on Mayor Thomas Menino's head during a visit.

The neighborhood has also improved in recent years, but Jikhalil said he and his classmates still worry about gang violence.

“You could just walk down the street and something could happen to you because somebody doesn't like the way you look or step on somebody's sneakers or something like that,” he said. “So I just try to stay away from that.”

Community centers and Boys and Girls Clubs aren’t popular with high school kids, and Jikhalil said many working parents lock their teens out of the house rather than let them stay at home unsupervised. Without the BSA Zone, Jikhalil said, kids like him would have nowhere to go after school except the streets.

Building A Support Network

Play Ball! — which runs football, baseball, volleyball and competitive double dutch for middle school students — and the Boston Public Schools — which runs track and basketball — differ in how they handle students’ inevitable academic missteps. After seeing both, Cannon-Jones prefers Play Ball!’s methods to the school system’s approach.

“It’s like if they don’t have the grades, they’re just cut,” she said. “Versus Play Ball!, if you slack off on your grades, you still have to show up on game day with your jersey on to participate with your teammates. You just are not allowed to play.”

Narayan said Play Ball! gave him a closer connection to teammates who were struggling in the classroom during the football season.

“We were trying to support them like, ‘If you get your grades up, there’s a possibility that you could get back onto the team. And that you shouldn’t act up because if you really love football, you shouldn’t do bad in your classes,’” Narayan said.

During the season, Jikhalil often acted as the Burke basketball team's chief motivator and alarm clock.

“I call my point guard every morning, like, ‘Yo, come on. We gotta get to school. I need you at school on time every day,’ " he said.

But with the season over Jikhalil is worried. Will his grades slip? Will he stop coming to school on time? Will he once again have nowhere to go after the final bell at 2:45 p.m.?

Coach Megan Waterbury has Jikhalil and his teammates covered.

“They're gonna be busy,” she said. “They don't quite know it yet but there won't be any offseason and then we'll get a whole bunch of them playing football and playing baseball and track and everything like that, so we plan to keep most of them very busy. Don't worry.”

In sports there are scores and records. In school there are tests and grades. But there’s also the social learning that comes with playing sports. And Narayan Jones is preparing for high school with a better sense of self-esteem.

“I feel like I made more friends and that people noticed me and it feels good,” Narayan said.

And high schooler Jikhalil Smith, who spent his first two years at the Burke wandering the halls, now can't think of anywhere else he'd want to be.

“I love my school,” Jikhalil said. “I wouldn't want to leave my school.”

Jikhalil knows he'll have to leave his school eventually, and when he does he says he'll "finish out strong" in college. He hopes that his height and talent will take him to the NBA, but the Boston Scholar Athletes have taught him to have a back-up plan. If not the pros, Jikhalil said, maybe he'll become a chef.

WBUR’s “Budgets & Box Scores” series was edited by Martha Little.

This program aired on May 16, 2013.

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.


Doug Tribou Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.



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