New initiatives helping shape BPS turnaround

ESPN's RISE UP series breathed new life into Dorchester Academy's fledgling athletics program when it paid a visit two months ago. Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.com

ROXBURY, Mass. -- “Get that homework out, we ain’t sittin’ on no luxury chairs today!”

It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday at the Vine Street Community Center in Roxbury, and hulking basketball coach Larry Merritt is taking no excuses.

“Tell them if they’re done with their homework, they can get a book to read. Write down the names of the kids who say they got nothing to do, some of them are repeat offenders.”

Upon hearing Merritt’s booming pronouncement, twenty pairs of eyes shift nervously to the floor as worksheets and textbooks begin to line the table. Careful to avoid the ire of their intimidating coach, the pre-teen boys start working on their assignments, under the watchful eyes of several volunteer tutors.

Merritt’s AAU basketball program, called Meritting Attention, is just one of a host of athletic initiatives complementing ESPN’s recent Rise Up project, helping Boston students succeed both on the field and in the classroom.

This past summer, ESPN identified Dorchester and TechBoston Academies, both of whom used the same dilapidated public field, as candidates for an athletic facility renovation courtesy of the network’s ‘Rise Up’ program. According to ESPN High School editor Margaret Myers, the station “contacted school authorities and the city of Boston, finding community contractors and local businesses who wanted to help with the project.” Volunteers from construction companies around the city re-sodded the baseball fields at Roberts Playground, installed a new walking path, and put in lighting and fencing to increase safety. Workers also built a new cardio room inside the school, and constructed a women’s locker room.

Although the final unveiling of the transformed facilities received great publicity and was the subject of a September 27 special on ESPN, the recent renovation has only served as one small part of renewed academic and athletic progress at Boston’s public high schools. Local initiatives such as Meriting Attention, the Boston Scholar-Athlete Program, and Red Bull’s “Boston’s got Wings” project, have combined with Rise Up to lift achievement among the city’s student-athletes.

Building from the ground up

Merritt described his organization as Boston’s “out of school time student-athlete program,” and sums up the club’s entire philosophy with his slogan, “we study before we play.”

“Students must be doing well in the classroom in order to participate in our program,” Merritt explained. “We hold tutoring and homework sessions before all of our practices, and all participants must have an ‘action plan’ in order to improve academically.”

In addition to coaching AAU teams for children in grades three to 11, Merritt holds Saturday morning basketball camps before the season starts. Since he frequently uses BPS facilities for homework sessions, practices, and games, the coach was quick to emphasize the universal value of Rise Up’s facility restoration in Dorchester.

"The renovations have brought a new life to the world of sports for the entire Dorchester Educational Complex community," Merritt said. "Having quality facilities to play on is huge for inner-city kids. Normally, they would have to travel to the suburbs to experience a game on state of the art facilities.”

Merritt’s program combines basketball instruction with academic tutoring and leadership development, and the coach assures that “each student-athlete will understand the importance of being a student in the classroom first, and then a student of the game.”

Most importantly, however, Merritt believes in the power of athletics as a springboard to achievement.

“Sports are a necessity for youth in general,” he said. “If kids are in good athletic programs, they should be able to encompass all the life-skills that they need to be successful.”

Jamal Allen, a recent graduate of Merritting Attention, exemplifies the coach’s sentiments.

“Larry’s program helped me improve academically,” he said. “It gave me the confidence to ask for help and succeed at school.”

Allen has since enrolled in Lincoln Middle School as part of the METCO Program, and stars on the school’s basketball team. He plans on attending Lincoln-Sudbury High School next fall.

Allen also highlighted Merritt’s role in supporting the community.

"Larry brings them together to do something productive, instead of spending time at home watching TV or wasting time on the streets," he said.

Volunteer mentor and Boston International senior Jesse Barbosa agreed, pointing out that the program "takes kids from [dangerous areas] and helps them do something that they really like and are interested in."

"Larry is helping to build a stronger community," she said.

Academic success through athletics

Elementary and middle-school aged children make up the vast majority of Meritting Attention’s players, and those who don’t later receive scholarships to private secondary schools must navigate the BPS system. However, the Boston-Scholar Athlete program (BSA), implemented in 2009 as a result of a Boston Globe article condemning the state of high school sports in the city, has made an effort to increase athletic participation and eligibility.

Partnering with Boston mayor Thomas Menino and the BPS, Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish pledged an unprecedented $5 million over five years to "support academic achievement through athletics."

As of the 2011-12 school year, the BSA has established academic “Zones” in all 19 Boston public high schools, complete with outside tutors and work stations equipped with computers and graphing calculators. In addition, the BSA sponsors numerous showcasing events to increase exposure for star athletes, and has made several equipment and facility improvements throughout the city.

"We know through research that there exists a direct correlation between participation in athletics and academic achievement," said Evan Davis, the BSA's executive director. "Our goal is to help make athletic programs in BPS schools as attractive as possible, and to get as many kids playing sports as possible."

By all accounts, the BSA program has been successful. Participation in fall athletics has increased by three percent since 2009, and almost 3,200 student-athletes are currently enrolled in Zones across Boston. In addition, graduation rates in the city’s high schools are at an all-time high, with 63.2 percent of students graduating on-time in 2010, up 1.8 percent since the implementation of the BSA program.

Barbosa, an avid softball player, described how the new Zone in her school has helped initiate academic improvement.

“[Before the Zones] Many kids didn’t participate in athletics because they didn’t think it was worth it,” she said. “But as time went by, they decided to give it a chance because there were new programs to help them academically. Participating in athletics became a way for kids to help get their grades up, and they became eligible to do things that they really liked, such as sports.” (Depending on the school, BPS students currently need between a 1.67 and 2.5 GPA to compete in athletics.)

The BSA also gave students at English High School in Jamaica Plain the support system they needed to meet the school’s landmark new GPA requirement of 2.5 to participate in sports. Barry Robinson, the athletic director and boys' basketball coach at English, explained that the school needed to raise the athletic prerequisite from a 1.67 because "when the season was over, the players’ interest level in school went down. Most of the time, they were just getting by and doing the minimum to get a 1.67."

Robinson emphasized that the BSA "really, really helps [the school] out.” The student-athletes benefit from the “laptops and tutors” in English’s Zone, and the BSA has allowed coaches to “look at students’ grades on a daily basis and monitor their progress in class,” he said. The program has even let Robinson establish a four hour Saturday study hall for student-athletes in the school’s Zone.

“The students need the extra support,” he said. “It’s not as if they leave on Friday, and we don’t see them again until Monday morning.”

Additionally, Barbosa explained that at Boston International, “many teachers volunteer to be in the Zone, which gives kids more contact with them and lets them feel more comfortable asking for help.”

“Kids are getting more focused,” she said. “The number of students who did really well on MCAS exams has increased a lot.”

From 2009 to 2010, Boston International High School saw a 47 percent improvement in passing scores for English, and a 10 percent increase in Math.

“With the BSA program, kids have found some kind of spark within themselves and have decided to stay focused on school,” Barbosa said. “Most have graduated and are now in college. Many students are just trying to find a hand to hold onto, so they can succeed.”

She recounted the story of one mentor in particular, Aly Azor, who has risen above and beyond his obligations to make sure students at Boston International feel cared for.

“Mr. Azor is always there for us,” she said. “Even when we are not in the Zone, he shows that he cares and that he is going to be there for us. He always has his hands open to support us.”

Barbosa explained that Azor, who graduated from Boston College in 2009, monitors the progress of student-athletes both inside and outside the Zone, and can frequently be seen smiling from the stands at games. In addition, Boston International headmaster Nicole Bahnam added that Azor’s frequent “homework sessions” and “SAT prep classes” have had “a great impact on the men and women” of her school.

Tutors like Azor are said to exemplify the qualities that the BSA hopes to instill in all BPS’ volunteers and coaches. In order to meet this goal, the program offers a free professional development course for all high school coaches in the city in addition to their student-based projects. The BSA Coaches Academy, as the program is called, “has helped coaches increase their skills in working on and off the court with student-athletes,” Merritt explained.

“Having coaches who are passionate about kids and competent about the sport in which they are coaching will help the kids stay in BPS schools,” he said.

Justin Rice, founder of the website BPSsports.com, shared Merritt’s opinion about the importance of capable coaches.

“Athletics in urban schools sometimes serve as a double-edged sword for disadvantaged youth if schools don't have the proper support systems in place to put sports in context for students,” he said. “Without solid coaches to promote a healthy sports environment, many students start to think that athletics are all about flashy dunks and fancy dribbling, and believe that they are destined to become NBA players.”

Rice made clear that when only 0.15 percent of high school athletes make it to the professional level (according to the NCAA), sports can sometimes give students “a sense of false hope” without qualified coaches to put athletics in perspective.

“The more education coaches receive, the better,” he said.

Boston celebrity gives back

Complementing the BSA’s model of identifying and renovating deteriorating public athletic facilities, Celtics star Rajon Rondo decided to launch his “Boston’s Got Wings” program at the beginning of the last NBA season.

For every steal Rondo logged on the year, his sponsor Red Bull donated $500 to the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, with the purpose of refurbishing public basketball courts around the city. Rondo raised almost $80,000 after recording 153 steals last season, and 13 courts within five city parks received extensive restorations as a result of his efforts. Malcolm X Park in Roxbury -- featured in Chris Ballard’s “Hoop Nation” as one of the top-30 national sites for pick-up basketball -- and the Back Bay Fens -- just steps from the Green Monster and storied Fenway Park -- were some of the more prominent courts to be repaired.

Cesar Adim, a ninth grade Boston resident and basketball standout at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, has witnessed firsthand the positive impact that the newly restored courts have had on the city’s young players.

“The renovations have given the kids around Boston a better, safer place to play,” he said. “They aren’t slipping on the court all the time, and the courts are not all messed up like they used to be.”

Last August, at the opening ceremony of the newly revamped courts at Malcolm X Park, Rondo echoed Adim’s reaction to Dime Magazine: “Having a place to play is very big. Anything for kids, I’m all with, and for.”

Rondo also explained to the magazine that the Boston’s Got Wings project “means a lot” to him, as a kid who was raised in inner-city Louisville.

Still a long road ahead

Nearly all the constructive initiatives recently put into operation around the city have been privately financed, and there remain numerous unfunded athletic needs within the BPS. Even with the substantial improvements made possible by Rise Up, the BSA, and Boston’s Got Wings, athletic facilities in many city schools are still decrepit.

Only six of the 19 BPS high schools have their own football fields; the rest are forced to play chronically under-attended “home” games in Jamaica Plain’s White Stadium. Once spring rolls around, nearly all the city’s baseball players will find themselves competing in public parks, with some teams, such as Boston International’s squad, hosting games as far as five miles from where they go to class. Consequently, the public schools appear an unattractive option to Boston’s most gifted athletes, many of whom are offered scholarships to one of the copious New England prep schools with powerhouse sports programs.

"BPS athletics have very talented athletes, but the challenge is that the private schools have better facilities," Merritt said. "It’s like comparing apples to oranges when a family is asked to make a decision between a state of the art facility, and a facility that needs a make over. Prep and private schools use their facilities as the recruiting hook when they invite candidates on their campus."

Antonio Menefve, a member of the New Mission High School basketball team in Roxbury, helped his team bring home the Division 2 State Championship last year. But the team still practices on a rented floor at the Tobin Community Center, because the school lacks its own gymnasium.

Barbosa, however, explained that her school lacks the resources for students to even participate in the city’s most popular sport.

“We are trying to start a basketball team, but the gym is too small,” she said. “It brings down hope for kids that are interested in basketball. Getting every public school the same facilities and equipment would make the community stronger.”

Robinson said that in spite of the BSA implementation, some “parents think the grass is greener on the other side.” They believe that private schools will help their children “focus better, and concentrate on academics,” he said.

Reflecting the feelings of some Boston-area parents, Menefve maintained that the most urgent problem affecting his school is that “kids are not being pushed hard enough to become true student-athletes."

"The BSA motivates some kids, and is giving students a chance to succeed, but I would go one step further and push up the athletic GPA requirement [at New Mission] from a C-minus to a B,” he said.

According to the Boston Globe and the BPS Superintendent’s Office, the city has actually cut the school athletic budget from $3.9 million in 2009 to $2.7 million for the 2012 Fiscal Year. When queried on the issue, Mathew Wilder, the Director of Media Relations for BPS, admitted that Boston schools “have a limited budget and are not able to do this work alone.”

“When you have so much money going into education, and such great emphasis on standardized test scores, you have to look for athletic funding elsewhere,” Merritt said. “Educating kids is so expensive.”

Wilder said the BPS athletic programs have largely been able to survive the budget shortfall because "good partners like Suffolk Construction have stepped up to the plate to help our students." But city schools still have a long way to go in developing new facilities and keeping kids academically motivated. The quality of athletics and academics in BPS schools have so far managed to improve considerably in an era of financial cuts, but it will take years to fully asses the city’s progress.

Most of the progress to date has been made possible because a coalition of large corporations such as Red Bull, ESPN, and Suffolk Construction, have aligned with local volunteers and together built a foundation for achievement in the city’s public schools. By helping to mentor student-athletes and renovate athletic facilities in Boston's inner-city, this partnership has started to "put in time to make the community better,” as Dorchester teenager Earl Stephens explained.

The companies have also helped to inspire a new wave of change -- from students at Dorchester and TechBoston Academies fixing up a neighborhood playground as part of Rise Up’s corporate outreach program, to Zone members in the BSA’s community initiative participating in local service projects. Although conditions in city schools remain nowhere near perfect, each selfless act, whether a complete overhaul of a playing field, or the simple step of showing up to a game, will continue to fortify the Boston community and increase athletic and academic opportunities for local children.

The experience of the Dorchester Bears Varsity football team, a beneficiary of the Rise Up program, epitomizes the continuing efforts of city charities and volunteers to improve athletic conditions for Boston’s youth. Even though the Bears currently reside at the bottom of the Boston City League standings and still play home games at White Stadium, nearly 3 miles away from their newly renovated school facilities, the players feel a new sense of preparedness and drive to succeed as a result of ESPN’s support.

“The Rise Up program has given us more hope," said senior quarterback and captain Michael Belifore. "We were coming off of a 3-7 season from last year, and we have been doing much better (the Bears are 4-3 so far in 2011); we stepped our game up. Everything they have done has benefited our season in a huge way, including the new weight room so we could get stronger, and the new track so we could condition.

“Even though 'Rise Up' is gone, we all still have that sense of pride because out of many schools, they chose ours, so its kind feels as if they never left. Even though they did little with the field, next year [the city] will be inserting turf and making it look more like a stadium. I think that [the project] was successful because it gave me more hope, showing me that anything is possible.”

Jillian Smith, the athletic director at TechBoston Academy, home of Bears athletics, accurately summed up the present state of BPS athletics when describing the atmosphere of her school.

“Programs like Rise Up and the BSA have provided a steppingstone to get athletics at our school where they need to be,” she said. “But we’re not there yet. Despite the renovations, we still lack our own full-length field. Students at TechBoston would like nothing more than to eventually play home football and soccer games under the lights, with teachers and friends cheering them on."

Overall, however, Smith maintained that the projects “have let kids know that we care about what they are doing, and want to help them succeed.”

Buckling down

It’s 11 a.m. at the community center, and the sound of excited giggling engulfs the first floor as twenty kids sprint up the stairs to the basketball court. Study hall is over, and it’s time to play ball.

The boys split up into two lines, each eagerly awaiting his chance to demonstrate a perfectly executed left-handed lay-up for the beaming coach at center court. Balls careen off the backboard as one by one the players twirl and leap, awkwardly attempting to complete the most subtly difficult of basketball plays.

Soon enough, the drills come to an end and the scrimmage finally begins. For these few minutes, there is no violence, no drugs, and each child is free to exalt in the supreme joy of competition.

But noon comes all too quickly. Time for the kids to stop playing.

“Don’t forget your homework next week,” Merritt reminds them.