Budgets And Box Scores: Funding Sports In Boston Public Schools

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Players dribble during a basketball skills clinic sponsored by the Boston Scholar Athletes in November. (Karen Given/WBUR)
Players dribble during a basketball skills clinic sponsored by the Boston Scholar Athletes in November. (Karen Given/Only A Game)

Over the past decade, while Boston’s pro sports teams were hoisting Lombardi and O'Brien trophies, ending Babe Ruth’s curse, and drinking from Lord Stanley’s Cup, Boston’s public school soccer teams were practicing without a goal.

But two privately-funded organizations are working to turn around the sad state of sports in Boston Public Schools.

There are a lot of kids in the Boston school district like high school junior Jikhalil Smith.

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

But a year ago, Jikhalil wasn't even bothering to go to class. That changed when he earned a spot on the basketball team.

There are also students like Narayan Jones, a eighth grader at Boston’s Lilla G. Frederick Middle School.

“I love football and I wouldn't want to mess it up by not getting good grades,” Narayan said.

But four years ago, football wasn't even offered in Boston’s middle schools. Back then, the city’s sports program was the subject of a scathing series in the Boston Globe. Investigative reporter Bob Hohler found problems that were downright scary.

“I mean, we had one baseball team that's practicing on the glass-shattered school yard ... getting prepared to play against these suburban teams that are out there in their beautiful green fields,” Hohler said. “It was just a really stark inequity at almost every level.”

Until 2009, the city had only one part-time trainer for 3,000 student-athletes. Some Boston suburbs were spending nearly three times as much as the city to support their football teams.

Across the country, parents pay fees for their kids to participate in sports. But most inner city families can’t afford that. 75 percent of students in the Boston Public Schools receive free or reduced lunch.

John Fish founded the Boston Scholar Athletes program. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
John Fish founded the Boston Scholar Athletes program. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“But my sense is that’s no excuse for where we are going forward,” said John Fish, CEO of a major construction firm.

Fish pledged $1 million a year through his company’s charitable foundation — and raised millions more. He founded the Boston Scholar Athletes: a program that pays for uniforms and equipment, training for coaches, and all-star games and banquets.

“It's about shared responsibilities, about people working together and lending a hand and putting their shoulder to the wheel both in time and money to make a difference,” Fish said.

And it’s a lot of money. The Boston Public Schools spend $3.1 million a year on sports. The Boston Scholar Athletes spend another $3.1 million, and they stick around to run the program in partnership with the district. Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson says cities around the country are intrigued.

“I think it is an unusual model,” Johnson said. “I think that there are examples across the country of a single team doing one event, but to have a sustained relationship, that level of investment is really pretty significant, and I think is probably unheard of in other communities.”

Boston has an unusual relationship with not just one, but two charities. The city’s middle schools are working with another group called the Play Ball! Foundation.

In March, the Mildred Avenue Middle School in the city’s Mattapan neighborhood held a double dutch tournament. Jon’a Washington has been jumping for two years.

“It keeps me in shape, I guess. It does everything for me,” Jon’a said. “I get good grades ‘cause of it. I do a lot of things.”

In double dutch, two girls twirl two white ropes simultaneously while their teammates bounce and jump between them. They twist themselves like contortionists during elaborate routines. Jon’a says the sport motivates her in the classroom.

“Because if I get lower than a 'C' then I can’t be able to jump” she said.

Linda Diggs-Ferreira coaches a team from the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School.

“I’m tired of hearing about all the violence on street,” Diggs-Ferreira said. “Programs like this get the kids off the streets into the gyms. and they’re thinking positive instead of negative.”

That’s why Michael Harney founded Play Ball! in 2005. The Boston resident and former Georgetown University lacrosse player wanted to focus on the middle schools.

Michael Harney, founder of The Play Ball! Foundation (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Michael Harney, founder of The Play Ball! Foundation (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It seemed like a really important age, especially for city kids,” Harney said. “It’s really where they can maybe sometimes make decisions. Whether they want to continue to stay in school. And what are they doing between 4:00 and 7:00 [p.m.] if they’re not playing sports, right?”

Before 2009, Boston’s 12,000 middle school students had two sports options: track and basketball. Today, Play Ball! funds four additional sports and has teams in more than half of the city’s middle schools.

The Boston Scholar Athletes support sports that already existed. The biggest components of that support are 19 BSA Zones, large classroom tutoring centers. Long after the final bell, the doors to the Zones are open for athletes who need a safe — and reasonably quiet — place to study.

Jikhalil Smith loves playing basketball. But for the first two years of high school he was academically ineligible to play, even though the district only requires a 1.67 GPA, a low 'C.' Then he found the Zone.

“My mind state two years ago was, alright, come to school for my friends, to see my friends,” Jikhalil said. “Now it's alright 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.”

Boston Scholar Athletes, which funds athletics programs for Boston Public School high school students, also sponsors learning centers. Here, Zone facilitator Taleen Taylor, left, works with Burke High School senior Yissa Guerrero. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston Scholar Athletes sponsors learning centers. Here, Zone facilitator Taleen Taylor (l) works with Burke High School senior Yissa Guerrero. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

To turn his high school career around, the 6-foot-5-inch Smith needed qualified tutors, the promise of playing time, and the dogged determination of 5-foot-2-inch Zone facilitator Tayleen Taylor.

“Miss T. You know, she don't give up on nobody,” Jikhalil said. “You tell her you don’t want to do it, she just won't give up. She'll just try, every time. So I made it.”

Jikhalil hasn't just made it. His GPA is now above a 4.0. He has plans for college and hopes of making the NBA. And he calls his teammates every morning to make sure they all show up on time for school.

The middle school program Play Ball! hopes to catch kids like Jikhalil earlier, so that they have a better chance of success in high school and beyond. Play Ball! is currently spending $400,000-500,000 a year to fund sports in Boston’s middle schools. To keep costs low, a dozen board members pitch in with administrative work. Play Ball! founder Michael Harney says four years into the partnership with the city, he is still excited about expanding the program.

“My only regret with this is that we haven’t moved faster because when you get to see a thousand kids at work every year, it’s awesome,” Harney said. “So I think we’re kind of just getting started.”

In late April, cheerleaders at the Boston Scholar Athletes annual fundraiser were pretty excited. In a single night, the organization raised $1.7 million. They’re going to need it.

The program already reaches 4,000 student athletes. But, as the quality of sports in the schools improves, more and more kids want to play.

Two players during a Play Ball!-sponsored football championship game in November (Doug Tribou/WBUR)
Two players during a Play Ball!-sponsored football championship game in November (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

John Fish would like to expand his program to other urban school districts. Boston Scholar Athlete Zone facilitator Jarick Walker thinks it’s a great idea.

“A lot of inner city schools have these similar problems where these kids have so much potential,” Walker said. “It's just that, you know, we didn't really do anything new or different. We just came in and told the kids, ‘You can do it.’ It works. These kids just need motivation. Once they're motivated, they work so hard.”

But Bob Hohler, the investigative reporter who started all of this, worries that there might be a dangerous precedent being set in Boston.

“A lot of people think this is a public obligation and we shouldn't be having to have a charitable organizations or people coming in to do the job that the public should be doing to support their kids in the schools.” Hohler said.

Wherever the funding comes from, Kassim Shavis thinks sports are worth the price. He’s a custodian and football coach at the Rogers Middle School.

“You get kids from all different walks of life, but they all come together for the same love and you see that,” Shavis said. “So you’ll get a kid that’s rough or a kid that might be not as rough as the next, and they’ll get along when in a different setting they won’t get along. So, I think that’s beautiful.”

And that’s something that won’t show up in a budget or a box score.

This segment aired on May 18, 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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