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Failing Our Athletes | Globe series follow-up

New gear, tutors give Hub school teams a chance

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / December 29, 2009

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As a witness to one lost opportunity after another, Anne Marie De Barros has spent years in the Boston public schools wondering when one of the most glaring inequities in Massachusetts high school sports would end.

Now she knows.

Beginning next fall, eight Boston public high schools where girls never had a chance to play varsity soccer - an option available to nearly every other high school girl in Massachusetts - will field varsity teams for the first time. Five other Boston high schools where students had no access to any level of interscholastic girls soccer will launch their first junior varsity programs, with an eye to making them varsity teams in 2011.

The girls soccer teams are among the first beneficiaries of a sweeping overhaul intended to bring comprehensive sports opportunities and academic support to thousands of Boston’s student-athletes.

De Barros, the junior varsity girls soccer coach at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, said she no longer will struggle to explain to her players, some of the best in Boston schools, why they have been treated as second-class citizens. The Burke girls will play their first varsity schedule next fall, removing the junior varsity stigma that has discouraged college recruiters from considering them for athletic scholarships.

“I’ve heard too many girls say, ‘The city doesn’t care about us,’ ’’ De Barros said. “But this will make them proud.’’

Five months ago, a new Boston Scholar Athlete program began providing money and manpower to the city’s overburdened athletic department. The mission is to address deficiencies in equipment, facilities, coaching, participation, and academic eligibility.

Following a Globe series detailing inadequacies in the school sports system, the initiative was developed by Mayor Thomas Menino and is spearheaded by Suffolk Construction Co.’s Red & Blue Foundation, which has donated $1 million to launch the program. Suffolk president John Fish recently pledged to contribute an additional $1 million next year.

For the moment, those two contributions make up the foundation’s available funds. Fish said he has delayed launching a fund-raising drive for the initiative because he first wanted to demonstrate to prospective donors his personal commitment to the project. He indicated he will kick off the fund drive in the new year.

The foundation has pledged to raise $7.5 million over three years, boosting the School Department’s annual $4 million athletic budget by more than 60 percent.

“We’re really at the tip of the iceberg,’’ said Fish, whose long-term goal is to raise $3 million a year. “I believe in two or three years this program will be the envy of the country.’’

The partnership has forged key alliances with colleges and universities, youth-oriented nonprofits, and the Boston Teachers Union, which represents the vast majority of the system’s 275 coaches. Early contributions have ranged from Northeastern’s defunct football team donating thousands of dollars worth of equipment, to dozens of college students and young professionals volunteering to tutor the city’s student-athletes.

“We’ve come a long way,’’ Menino said. “It took outside intervention to make it happen, but we’re seeing accomplishments in our school athletic system that we never saw before.’’

Much remains to be done, however. Collaboration between the Boston Scholar Athlete program and the city’s athletic administrators, headmasters, and coaches needs improvement, according to parties in each camp.

“Everybody’s heart is in the right place,’’ said Josh Bordes, who helps coach Madison Park boys soccer and Charlestown boys basketball. “But if they work in concert with each other, it will be all the better.’’

Widespread academic ineligibility persists, as dozens of students continue to be barred from participating because of poor grades. As a consequence, participation levels remain low in many sports, despite a 40 percent increase in the number of soccer players thanks to intramural programs created through the new partnership.

Parental involvement is still meager, gang-related violence continues to concern students commuting from games and practices, and money remains so tight that some coaches still reach into their own pockets to outfit their neediest players with equipment that is not supplied by the city.

Several coaches and administrators, while praising the Boston Scholar Athlete program, expressed concern about the city’s long-term commitment. Some worried that Menino launched the effort largely to blunt criticism during his reelection campaign.

“We’ve never seen this kind of attention paid to athletics by the Boston public schools, and nothing has given me the impression it won’t continue,’’ said Dan Hackett, Charlestown’s boys soccer coach. “But there is healthy skepticism, especially among some veteran coaches, that the program could come and go like Santa Claus.’’

Menino pledged to champion the initiative.

“Cynics, step aside,’’ he said. “We’re moving forward. What we have here is a real example for other cities to replicate.’’

Menino, who persuaded Northeastern’s president, Joseph Aoun, to donate the football gear, recently sent a letter asking presidents of the city’s major colleges and universities to serve on an advisory board for the Boston Scholar Athlete program.

School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said the new partnership has achieved “very exciting’’ progress in its first months, though there is more work to do.

She echoed the need for greater cooperation. “As we work as a team to enhance our programs, we need to make sure our headmasters are kept well informed and our athletic director and coaches are getting a chance to offer their thoughts about how the programs could be stronger,’’ Johnson said.

The Boston Scholar Athlete blueprint calls for upgrading one boys’ and one girls’ sport each season, beginning this year with soccer, basketball, baseball, and softball. The first step has been providing players new uniforms for home and away games, as well as practices, a marked improvement over the mismatched look previously familiar to many Boston teams. The program also bought eight regulation soccer goals for practice fields that previously had none.

As an unanticipated bonus, the initiative has inspired action by numerous nonprofits, most notably the Play Ball! Foundation, which last fall launched the city’s first middle-school football league with a three-year, $100,000 contribution. The dearth of interscholastic sports in Boston’s 22 middle schools is considered a major reason why the high school teams generally fare poorly against suburban schools with rich feeder systems.

Both Johnson and Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, stressed the need to continue expanding middle school athletics.

The primary goal of the Boston Scholar Athlete program, however, is to help high school athletes fare better in the classroom. Some teams lost as many as 10 players last fall to academic ineligibility.

“It’s totally heartbreaking,’’ said De Barros, who lost seven players to poor grades.

The new program has attacked the problem with an array of initiatives, including a series of educational clinics at Wheelock, Emmanuel, and Northeastern. For the first time, drop-in help centers have opened Saturdays at the Boston Public Library and at Microsoft in Cambridge, where students receive help conducting their college searches and preparing their applications.

Every student-athlete in the city is now required to participate in an academic support program. The Boston Scholar Athlete program is hiring part-time academic coaches to monitor the progress of athletes on each team it upgrades, a move Johnson considers vital to the program’s success.

For all its early progress, however, the initiative has yet to revitalize some struggling programs, including Brighton’s boys soccer team. Matt Krebs, a geometry teacher who began coaching the team three years ago, stepped down after the fall season, citing his inability to recruit and motivate enough players.

Krebs, who had no coaching experience, said he burned out after making numerous attempts to build interest in the program, including securing a $5,000 grant from the Michael Jordan Foundation to outfit his team with premium uniforms, warm-ups, and other accessories.

Krebs said he was unable to recruit more than 14 players, many of whom regularly skipped practices. “I found out it was an impossible situation if you want to be effective,’’ he said. “A lot of coaches accept that there’s nothing they can do, but I gave it everything I had and got to the point where I couldn’t take the frustration anymore.’’

Coaches like Krebs, who yearn to succeed but lack much coaching experience, are expected to benefit from a series of professional development opportunities the Boston Scholar Athlete program offers in cooperation with the Boston Teachers Union.

The workshops will also benefit coaches in the eight new varsity girls soccer programs. Joining Boston Latin School and Boston Latin Academy as varsity teams will be Burke, Brighton, East Boston, English, Madison Park, O’Bryant, Snowden, and West Roxbury. Junior varsity programs will be introduced at Charlestown, Dorchester, Hyde Park, New Mission, and South Boston.

To gender equity advocates, the upgrades are long overdue.

“For too long, the Boston public schools placed very little value on girls sports,’’ said Leah Arteaga, whose daughter, Tracy, was cocaptain of English’s junior varsity team last fall. “It took the BSA to come in and say, ‘No way. These girls need a fair shake.’ ’’

Arteaga said her daughter’s chances of playing college soccer were diminished by English’s lack of a varsity team. She predicted that the varsity program, with other improvements in the system, will stir the aspirations of student-athletes across the city.

“When kids see themselves being successful in sports, they start to see themselves being successful in other endeavors,’’ said Arteaga. “That’s the beauty of this program.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.