Innovative ideas and some helpful professional heroes are among the ways that large urban schools are addressing the flight to the suburbs and renewing interest in athletic and activity participation in public schools.
Jasper Jewell, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) director of athletics, has witnessed his 50,000-student school district grow in the past eight years from about 4,800 student-athletes to its current tally of 8,000.
Lacrosse, swimming and wrestling, once having minimal interest from student-athletes, have grown drastically for APS since 2010. Jewell said the school district went from having one wrestling team in 2010 out of 11 high schools, to now having wrestling in nine out of 11 high schools. Of those, one school is an all-female high school. Jewell added that swimming grew from two schools to 10, while lacrosse has been adopted by six schools, including one of which claimed an area championship last season.
“What we try to do is give a few more sport opportunities to our kids because a lot of times kids get discouraged with having your basic sports like football, baseball, basketball and softball,” Jewell said. “We wanted to make sure that we introduced some emerging sports and put some points of emphasis on some of those so that we reach all of our students.”
Jewell said the Atlanta United FC and its “Soccer in the Streets” program has done its part to grow soccer in urban areas – starting at the middle school level – by contributing funds to cover the cost of uniforms and clinics.
“We’re now starting to grow our soccer programs in the middle schools as early as sixth-grade, and for us being in the inner city, and soccer not being a sport that our kids knew a lot about, they’re becoming educated on it basically free of charge without having to incur the costs of playing on a club team,” Jewell said. Likewise, the Texas Rangers professional baseball team, in conjunction with Mercy Street Ministries, have made inroads with the Dallas Independent School District (ISD). West Dallas is looking to add an extensive athletic complex – the Field of Dreams – as championed by Mercy Street and Turf Solutions Group. The complex
will expand the Mercy Street sports ministry to serve West Dallas youth and families in the next 10 years by providing baseball, softball, T-ball, soccer, football and baseball camps.
Brad Burns, Dallas ISD assistant director of athletics, said the efforts of the Rangers and Mercy Street have already done a lot to drive baseball participation. The Rangers haven’t limited their reach to baseball though, Burns said, adding they’ve connected students to their interests in media, stadium management and sports marketing, as well as assisting with ACT and SAT prep.
“It’s a wide range of things that they’re doing to increase interest. The Rangers and Major League Baseball (MLB) have invested more than $14 million in it,” Burns said. “Clayton Kershaw’s also involved, even though he isn’t a Ranger. One of the parks nearby is named after him. Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Prince Fielder; I could keep going on and on with the guys who have been involved. Jeff Banister, the manager of the Rangers, has been actively involved as well. There’s lots of people pouring money back into inner-city Dallas.”
From an academic perspective, much of Dallas ISD’s growth has come from the evolution of collegiate academies in most of the area’s high schools, Burns said. Thanks to its rise, students can graduate from high school with anywhere between 30 to 60 credit hours.
“For families on a restricted budget, that’s a huge plus. This is free college for a lot of kids and families,” Burns said. “Students can start college and have already saved a year or two worth of tuition, car payment, gas, food, room and board, books, etc. That’s a huge plus for them. We’ve been seeing a return in our numbers largely due to that. Our enrollment’s moving up.”
Another urban district experiencing growing participation numbers is Kansas City (Missouri) Public Schools (KCPS). Comprised of 15,500 students and six high schools, KCPS, too, has taken to the lower grades to increase participation numbers. The district just had high school athletics when James Sanders, district athletic director for KCPS, arrived seven years ago. A middle school athletic program was implemented four years ago, and an elementary program began last year.
“We implemented elementary and middle school programs to capture the students at a younger age,” Sanders said. “We hope that they will hold that experience into high school.”
The middle school program includes track and field, cross county, basketball, soccer, wrestling and swimming. The district hopes to add flag football to this list in the upcoming spring. The program has increased in participation every year since it was implemented.
Girls swimming and wrestling were recently added as sanctioned sports in the Kansas City Public Schools district. Sanders attributes the growth and success of the district to the superintendent that he says is “very pro sports and pro athletics.”
Officials in the Kansas City district also have been engaging with the students at their member schools, getting a feel for what they are interested in and what they would like to see from Kansas City.
“We want to make sure the coaches are in the cafeteria and the hallways talking to kids,” Sanders said. “It’s amazing how many kids will come out [for a sport] if you just engage with them and ask.”
With the newly developed elementary school athletic program, the district hosts an elementary intramural Saturday where high school students mentor and play sports with the younger students. The activity also allows other members of the community to be involved with the Kansas City Public Schools athletic programs.
“The older high school kids have more of an influence on the younger kids, and it gives them someone to look up to,” Sanders said.
Talking directly to the students at member schools also has been the focus of the District of Columbia State Athletic Association (DCSAA). Kenny Owens, DCSAA statewide program coordinator of athletics, said when you hear what the students want to do, they become more engaged and more willing to participate.
“We start this at the ground level and really pull the kids in,” Owens said. “We ask the students what they want and what they are interested in and continue to grow.”
After re-organizing as the DCSAA in 2012, the district now has more than 13,000 students who participate in athletics, and that number continues to climb. Clark Ray, statewide director of athletics for the DCSAA, knows that urban areas, especially D.C., have other areas of focus compared to smaller cities with fewer outside options for athletics.
“When we are promoting high school athletics, the challenges are a little different,” Ray said. “What we compete with is different because so much in the area diverts to all of the professional sports options.”
Chess and ultimate frisbee have been newly added to the DCSAA roster of sanctioned sports with state tournaments at the request of the students. Archery and swimming are two other sports the association is considering after talking with students at their member schools.
“A lot of these kids are using athletics as motivation into a better socioeconomic class,” Ray said. “They want to be the next Michael Jordan, and sometimes that’s a good thing.”
Despite growth, programs in these areas and others maintain their day-to-day challenges. One threat that’s been on the rise comes from an influx of charter schools.
Although not all schools have faced the issue, Jewell said when charters entered APS territory about five years ago, they started pulling students from nearby high schools. Jewell believes the reason for those moves is largely based on parents’ opinions that their children can get a better education.
In Atlanta and Dallas, leaders are placing an emphasis on hiring quality coaches, or as Jewell put it, having “those that are not necessarily in it for the money, but who really care about our children.”
Dallas ISD coaches are required to be certified school teachers, Burns said, which is something he views as an advantage over many schools outside his district. The Texas University Interscholastic League (UIL) requires all coaches to be full-time employees, as well. Burns said there’s currently a movement to educate teachers on how to work with players, students and their parents.
“We try to celebrate our students as much as we can because being in the inner city for a lot of our kids makes it tough sledding when they get home,” Jewell said. “We try to put our arms around them, let them know that we love them, we’re going to embrace them and, while we’re here, we’re also going to coach them up hard, teach them the right way, and show them some love as well.”
Cody Porter is a graphic arts/communications assistant in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department. Marisa Miller was a summer intern in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department.