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Giving them a reason to stay: the Sports School in East Harlem

By Barbara HallSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 1985

New York

This is East Harlem, where market windows hawk collard greens, where the topic of conversation on every street corner is not education, where poverty can enslave. It's also the home of the Sports School -- a small junior high founded seven years ago by an educator whose belief in East Harlem's young was matched by his belief in the alchemy of athletics.

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John Elwell, a white reading teacher at another East Harlem junior high, looked around him in the spring of 1978 and determined that great problems warranted greater solutions. Watching Cornelius Sullivan, he recalls, a 12-year-old who was ``impossible to teach in the academics, but an agile, beautiful [person], I thought `why can't I motivate kids like that in school?' ''

The time was right. The city's Board of Education was in the early stages of sanctioning an array of ``theme'' schools (specializing institutions much like the high schools recently called for statewide by Gov. Mario Cuomo.)

The Sports School was soon formally established and given quarters atop an existing elementary school on 113th Street. From the outset, it has been in a league of its own.

Two factors in the school's carefully wrought philosophy account for its difference and its success. First is the evident one -- the use of sports as a tie to bind other concerns.

Says Mr. Elwell, ``Our philosophy involved athletics as a positive learning experience that carries over to the academic subjects. The act of learning -- the belief that one can learn -- is transmitted from sports to other areas. . . . What we're doing here is what other schools do in [physical education], but we take it seriously. We teach skills, but we also teach sportsmanship: dealing with winning and losing, working within a team.''

The school meets these objectives in several ways. Teachers are hired selectively. (``We hire more like a private school,'' says Elwell. ``We feel so strongly that, if we don't have the right kind of staff, this won't work.'') All teachers are also qualified coaches. One teacher-coach, Brian Spears, explains, ``We understand that kids react differently to teachers on the playing field [and] in the class.'' Relationships that begin on the field grow in the classroom, resulting in higher morale and achievement among two classes each of seventh, eighth, and ninth graders.

A second factor in the school philosophy, its principal feels, shores up that attitude:

The Sports School is run on a system of facilitators and consentual management. One facilitator per grade oversees organizational details such as book buying and field trips. Meanwhile, in areas like homework and attendance, teachers hone policy by vote at monthly meetings. Initially, these operated as a pure democracy, but more recently they have become representational. The principal has veto power, ``but I almost never use it. . . . We involve all the school in decisionmaking all along the way. This is not because I read a book on Japanese management,'' he quips. ``We feel we have a sort of mission to work with the kids of East Harlem. We support one another at a level most schools don't have. You'll never get that if you're a typical principal or headmaster. This school has a soul. It really does.''