Craig LeMoult
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Youth sports programs teach more than athleticism

(Published in the New York Resident)

Craig LeMoult
Columbia News Service

Twelve-year-old Harlem native Basilio Garay invented a robot. Not just any robot, but a robot that serves as a base coach for baseball games and runs on water.

“This is good, Basi,” said Basilio's teacher, Nefretari Bey, after reading the young boy's creative writing assignment aloud at Harlem's Junior High School 99. Basilio's choice for the imaginary invention assignment wasn't surprising, given how the seventh-grade Yankees fan spends his afternoons.

He is one of more than 600 kids who are part of Harlem RBI, an after-school program that uses baseball to teach kids much more than how to hit or catch a ball. Bey is a tutor in Harlem RBI's “Homework Zone,” helping Basilio and six of his teammates with their school assignments. On this day, the lesson followed a team meeting that focused on teamwork and leadership skills.

In recent years, youth sports have seen an increase in competitiveness that many feel has replaced the fun and playful nature of the games. Several state legislatures have even passed laws levying stiff penalties against people who attack referees, following a spike in the number of violent incidents, often involving parents. The Citizenship Through Sports Alliance issued a national report card last year that gave the nation's youth sports programs a D on both parental behavior and child-centered philosophy.

But a new breed of youth program is popping up around the country that embraces sport as a way to teach children much more than lessons on the field. After-school programs in everything from squash to ice-skating are using sports as a platform to teach young people about literacy, self-esteem, conflict resolution and leadership.

America Scores, a national after-school program with chapters around the country, uses soccer as a hook to teach literacy skills to kids. On-field practices are balanced with essay and poetry writing.

“I think at first they sign up for the soccer, and the writing is just something they have to do,” said Naomi Santos, education director for the New York chapter. The New York Scores curriculum includes “poetry slams” in which the students recite their original poems in front of coffee-drinking crowds at local Starbucks.

In Boston, where colleges seem to be everywhere and most of them are out of reach of many of the city's lower-income students, organizations are using sports to support children academically and encourage them to continue on to college.

G-ROW, a crew program, is training middle school and high school girls to row along the Charles River, but it also teaches them about community service and leadership while imparting academic support and advice for college. The program is coached by female college students from Boston, who serve as role models and encourage the girls to consider college as an option within their reach.

“We definitely have a culture of responsibility and accountability that we get the girls on board with, and they are very aware from Day 1 that academics are important,” said Ellen Minzner, G-ROW's program director.

Six years ago, Zack Lehman, a lawyer and former lacrosse player at Dartmouth, started MetroLacrosse for young people in inner-city Boston. Today, the program gets more than 550 young players involved in its character development program.

“Lacrosse is rife with conflict,” Lehman said. In a competition with plenty of hitting and bumping, he said, learning to work out conflicts is part of the game.

Lehman hopes that understanding how to deal with those conflicts and follow rules will help his players deal with the real world maturely.

Another Boston program, Squashbusters, uses squash to pull kids into a program that, among other things, helps them with statewide academic aptitude tests and SATs. And the Hoops and Leaders basketball program in New York teaches leadership skills while matching each young player with an adult mentor.

Each of these programs has grown from an individual who saw a need.

Now many of these individuals are coming together for the first time to talk about what they've achieved and how to continue spreading this movement. In June, 25 leaders in after-school programs and youth sports research, policy and philanthropy will gather in Vail, Colo., for a conference on the subject.

“This is, of course, part of a much larger issue that goes beyond sports, which is the debate that has occurred for a long time: whether after-school programming should be academic or should not be academic.” said Dr. Gil Noam, director of the Program in Education, Afterschool and Resiliency at Harvard and one of the conference's hosts.

Noam says the consensus over the last several years has been that the programming should be both. He says more professionals accept the notion that after-school programs should support academic work without becoming test-driven or taking on the responsibility of classroom teachers.

But Noam says he is realistic about how much the programs can achieve.

“While many of these programs are extremely successful on the sports side of things, some of the evaluations don't show as much success on the tutoring side,” he said. “It's very hard to impact the academic leaning of children outside of school without knowing enough about what's going on in the school.”

Jeffrey Beedy, the co-host of the upcoming national meeting and founder of Sports PLUS, a nonprofit group that supports using sports as an educational medium, stressed the importance of reaching kids through sports while they are still playing.

“We live in a highly competitive organized youth sport world, where 45 millions kids play every year,” he said. “The highest number [of players] is at age 10. But by the time they're 14, 75 percent of them have dropped out. So we have to do this.”

For 12-year-old baseball player Kenneth Coar, Harlem RBI seems to be making a difference. He says he's moved up in his school's honor roll from a “bronze” category to “silver.” And he doesn't seem at all worried about Saturday's scrimmage against the eighth graders.