THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

For Boston’s student athletes, a sporting chance at last

Philanthropist’s passion and millions are working wonders, but city’s own efforts lag

Thanks to the program, girls at eight more city high schools are playing varsity soccer this fall. Thanks to the program, girls at eight more city high schools are playing varsity soccer this fall. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / October 17, 2010

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First of two parts.

Football was going to be his salvation. D’Andre Farnum, a Dorchester teenager tangled up in gang culture, planned to become a football star at a Boston public high school, earn a college athletic scholarship, maybe strike it rich in the National Football League.

Then his grades slipped. The rugged lineman lost his eligibility to play sports and turned toward the streets, another young man going nowhere, his dreams deferred.

“I got mad and stopped caring,’’ Farnum said.

A year later, he is back on the football field and thriving in the classroom, a face of hope in a city where the schools, and school sports, are too often no match for the temptations of the streets. Farnum is among dozens of struggling student-athletes who have regained their eligibility to play sports and a glimmer of optimism about the future as the first beneficiaries of the multimillion-dollar Boston Scholar Athlete Program.

The project, launched last year to address chronic deficiencies in Boston school athletics, has begun transforming a second-rate system into one that is viewed as a possible model for cash-strapped urban districts, even as some headmasters, teachers, and coaches express skepticism about the city’s long-term commitment to the initiative.

With a projected annual budget of $2.5 million, the city’s push to upgrade school athletics so far has relied solely on the charity of John Fish, president of Roxbury-based Suffolk Construction Co. Fish has pledged $1 million annually over the program’s first five years — the largest individual commitment ever to Boston’s student-athletes. He has already spent more than $1.2 million to improve academic and athletic conditions for 1,700 members of 96 teams at 18 Boston high schools.

But Fish will need major financial help to sustain and expand the initiative, and the program has yet to launch a promised fund-raising campaign. The delay has raised questions about Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s initial pledge that the city would do its part by enlisting Boston’s professional sports teams and other businesses in the financing. The city has also failed so far to boost the paltry school department athletic budget.

“It’s going to take five or six years for the program to really make a difference, and I don’t know if they’re going to be around that long,’’ said Arturo Clemente, the girls basketball coach at West Roxbury High School, who supports the initiative.

Menino, who created and co-chairs the program with Fish, vowed in an interview to keep it alive. He launched the turnaround after a Globe series last year detailed an array of problems with the school athletic system, from subpar facilities and insufficient equipment to an entire lack of teams in some major sports and utterly inadequate academic support for many athletes.

“This thing has really moved the agenda for scholar athletes like I’ve never seen before in my career,’’ said Menino. “As long as I’m sitting in this chair and living in this city, we’ll be working on it together.’’

Some early dividends
Boston’s colleges and universities have made substantial in-kind contributions to the program, providing coaching clinics, student tutors, health and wellness services, practice fields, and planning advice. Northeastern University also donated $54,000 worth of equipment after shutting down its football program.

But much remains to be done to eliminate the substandard conditions in Boston school sports. The greatest financial need involves long-term funding for academic support programs, and topping the list of building challenges is the antiquated gym at 80-year-old Brighton High School, which could cost millions of public or private dollars to renovate.

Fish said he has postponed seeking additional donors so he could demonstrate the power of his personal commitment and the project’s potential. He also wants the city to boost its own budget for athletics before asking others to fill the gap.

Still, there has been major progress in the program’s first phase. With upgrades in equipment, uniforms, facilities, coaching expertise, and educational support, the program this year will reach nearly 4,000 students on 157 teams. Next year, the project is slated to benefit more than 5,000 athletes on nearly every high school team in the city.

And thanks to the initiative, girls at eight Boston high schools are playing varsity soccer for the first time this fall. Five other schools that had long denied girls the opportunity to play interscholastic soccer are fielding their first junior varsity teams this year.

“This program is giving a lot of us the chances we never had,’’ said Farnum, a junior at the Dorchester Education Complex who is trying to make his way out of the Franklin Field housing development. “We couldn’t do it by ourselves.’’

The program’s early successes are attracting attention in other cities. School officials in Portland, Maine, for example, have asked leaders of Boston’s program to advise them on improving interscholastic athletics in a difficult economy.

“I’m proud to say we have something special here,’’ Fish said, pledging to soon kick off a fund-raising drive.

Fish, a Hingham native who played sports at Tabor Academy and Bowdoin College, said he identifies with youths who draw confidence from athletics to face academic challenges. He copes with severe dyslexia, he said, and “can’t spell beyond the fifth-grade level.’’

He guaranteed the Scholar Athlete Program’s viability “for the next 25, 30, 40 years, until I’m dead.’’

Without the new initiative, Boston’s student-athletes would remain underserved by the city’s annual $4 million sports budget. The commitment is less than a half-percent of Boston’s total school budget, far below the state and national averages.

Fish is pushing school Superintendent Carol R. Johnson to increase the city’s spending on school sports. He said school officials, by boosting their commitment to the athletic system, would show prospective donors the city is serious about helping student-athletes.

Johnson said the school department has demonstrated its commitment in part by maintaining the athletics budget while substantially cutting many other programs and laying off employees to close a $60 million budget gap. She also cited a “culture shift’’ in which many headmasters, teachers, and coaches have embraced the effort to improve conditions for the city’s student-athletes.

But she agreed to do more.

“We obviously have budget challenges,’’ she said, “but we want to demonstrate to our partners that we are willing to invest in this program because it’s so important to us.’’

Building resource centers
Johnson said one of her priorities this year is improving middle school sports, long one of the system’s greatest deficiencies. Last year, she hired a full-time administrator to attack the problem. She also cleared the way for the Play Ball! Foundation to establish football, baseball, softball, and double Dutch jump rope leagues in Boston’s middle schools. And the nonprofit Boston Promise basketball program has launched an academic support program that helps guide middle schoolers to college.

The middle school makeover should help improve the athletic performances of Boston’s high school students, while the Scholar Athlete Program boosts their academic proficiency.

The program last year enlisted teachers to serve as education coaches for the 96 soccer, basketball, baseball, and softball teams targeted in the first round of upgrades. The plan required teams to hold study halls after school, and while the strategy worked wonders for some students who needed extra attention, others considered the sessions an unnecessary burden.

“You can’t cancel practice and have the whole team study if only two or three kids really need it,’’ said Tim Likosky, the boys soccer coach at Boston International High School. “You end up punishing the rest of the team.’’

Responding in part to the criticism, program officials this year adopted a new approach by building and equipping academic resource centers, called Zones, at all 18 high schools. The centers are staffed by education specialists with sports backgrounds who work with college interns and other volunteers to monitor and assist student-athletes.

The resource rooms, decorated with championship banners and league trophies to spur pride and motivation, are expected to help boost the number of college-bound student-athletes while reducing the high rate of academic ineligibility undermining many high school teams. (The toll was particularly high last year for Charlestown’s winless football team, which forfeited one game, and the school’s baseball team, which failed to complete its schedule.)

The new centers were immediately popular at many schools. More than 60 students lined up on opening day at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, and similar enthusiasm was reported at Dorchester Education Complex, where a pilot center last year helped Farnum and dozens of other students.

“The center is making a phenomenal difference in the kids’ lives,’’ Dorchester football coach Rich Moran said. “It’s like night and day from what we had before.’’

Nichole Bukowski, an English teacher and former scholarship athlete at Boston College who runs the Dorchester Complex center, awards “GPA Club’’ pins to students as they ascend the grade point scale from 2.0 to 4.0. She also keeps files with each student- athlete’s schedule, grades, test scores, progress reports, college applications, and recommendations.

In addition, Bukowski teaches a sports-themed English course, whose reading list includes works such as “Friday Night Lights.’’

“It’s not like we didn’t want to do all these things before,’’ Bukowski said, “but the Scholar Athlete Program came in with the funds and made it happen.’’

One of the project’s few early snags involved strained communications between program officials and the city’s lone athletic director, Ken Still, and some headmasters. School administrators wanted more cooperation in planning and implementing policies.

Fish addressed the issue by making personnel changes and reaching out to school officials to improve relations. He also eased the strain on Still’s overburdened, four-person staff by hiring a full-time team for the Scholar Athlete Program. The team is led by director Rebekah Splaine, chief academic officer Katy Meade, and athletic director Evan Davis.

In all, the program comprises five full timers as well as 18 part timers who manage the resource centers.

“We got off to a shaky start, but the ship is running a lot smoother now,’’ Still said. “We’re going to work together to do some amazing things in Boston school athletics.’’

‘Now we fix it’
In its first year, the program upgraded sports venues across the city, providing soccer goals at practice fields that lacked them, painting basketball floors, and improving baseball and softball fields. But the greatest challenge may be the Brighton gym, whose latest problem is a buckled floor caused by a water leak.

Despite the high cost of a complete overhaul, Fish said he “will figure out a strategy to get the gym fixed before basketball season.’’

Menino concurred.

“In the past, the status quo was OK,’’ the mayor said. “Broken basketball hoop? Who cares. Now we fix it. It shows the kids we care about them.’’

When officials at South Boston High complained that a community center at the team’s football field had been locked for years during practices and games — denying players and coaches access to restrooms, a chalkboard, and storage space — Menino eliminated the hardship with a single call to a city worker.

“We’ve had so many problems through the years, and sometimes we’ve felt like we were out there fighting on our own,’’ South Boston football coach Sean Guthrie said. “Now we have somebody willing to step up and fight with us. It makes all the difference.’’

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

Coming Tuesday: A look at a new program that aims to keep elite athletes from fleeing to private schools.