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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.)

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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.''

Mr. Spears has initiated sports programs that go beyond the usual. He uses videotapes to teach skills, for instance, and holds clinics before intramural meets. Pupil-to-teacher (coach) ratio for these is typically 25-2, significantly better than the ratio in most city classrooms. During the late spring, Spears coordinates an Olympics week. At this time, sports are united with the curriculum so that, for example, metrics are applied to athletic events in math class, and the ancient games are explored in social studies.

Elwell says that most students enter the Sports School ``very deficient in basic skills. Basics are a red flag to them.'' (Students are generally referred by sixth grade teachers, or may arrive by way of an East Harlem feeder elementary school.) The school, therefore, is based on the belief that ``content ought to be used to teach basic skills,'' Elwell says. ``If the curriculum is stimulating, motivation in the basics will follow.'' This policy has led to special projects -- like the collective novels written in English classes at each grade level.

Nonathletic standards at the school are deliberately set to topple the stereotype of brainless brawn. Students are assigned two hours of homework a night -- ``real, genuine homework, the kind they have to have to participate in the next day's class,'' adds Elwell. For two years, eighth and ninth graders have gained from academic tutoring by Columbia Law School students. Once a week, students spend time at the university across town. Beforehand, Sports School teachers write individual student evaluations and confer with the tutor-volunteers. ``For a while,'' says the principal, ``we didn't know whether it made any difference. Then we noticed that when the tutors were on vacation, the kids didn't do as well.''

The Columbia jaunts, in fact, broaden the students' horizons in other ways officials see as crucial. Elwell describes his students as ``real ghetto kids. Good kids. Sure, we have a few bad ones, but here, it's the opposite of the rotten apple spoiling the barrel.'' Their home lives range from, ``awful to good,'' according to Spears.``The vast majority have single parents on welfare. The better homes are projects. The worse are on the side streets.'' He mentions one girl who lives in the lone occupied dwelling on an otherwise abandoned block. Her family of 10 resides in three rooms.

``Most of these kids have little experience with the world outside of East Harlem'' when they enter the school, says Elwell. To change that, arrangements are made for a variety of sports-related school exchanges and field trips, often paid for by the hosting institution. These include a 40-student exchange with a Scarsdale, N.Y., school; an outing at Princeton University funded by Princeton alumni, where students heard a lecture on the Olympics and worked with college athletes; history trips to Boston and Washington, D.C.; and an annual excursion to the Episcopal School in Alexandria, Va. Brian Spears calls these ``some of the most rewarding days of my life. Our kids are extremely warm. They reach out.''

Court, gym, and field, he observes, are universal ground -- ``their bridge to other cultures. They make their best contacts there.'' His firm dedication -- devotion is not too strong a word -- to the school and its students is shared by all staff members here.

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