John Hancock grants new life to intramurals in Boston's junior highs

Observers of recent education reforms across the United States have tied much of the impetus for tougher standards in schools, and for a ``more work, less play'' attitude, to the nation's business community. But some clear evidence that business recognizes the value of extracurricular activities in a well-rounded education surfaced recently in Boston: The John Hancock Life Insurance Company made a substantial grant to the Boston public schools to help restore intramural sports programs in the city's middle schools.

The Boston-based company, long a supporter of local education, announced in February the creation of a $1 million endowment for Boston's 22 middle schools, serving more than 10,000 students. Half of the endowment's income, expected to be about $100,000 a year, is earmarked for new programs to improve basic academic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics.

But the other half will be used to restore after-school athletic activities for young adolescents in Grades 6-8 beginning next fall. Among the sports being considered for the intramural program are basketball, floor hockey, soccer, softball, swimming, track, and volleyball. Intramural sports in Boston's middle schools fell prey to budget cuts several years ago.

In announcing the endowment, Hancock officials noted that characteristics of the typical dropout -- including weak basic skills, poor attendance, and failing grades, as well as lack of participation in sports and other extracurricular activities -- are often well established by the end of the middle grades. This realization, coupled with the fact that the middle schools have been generally left outside the nation's spotlight on education, led the company to create the endowment.

``The middle schools have often been neglected in recent efforts to rebuild public education and should be considered the turning point of a student's life,'' says John McElwee, Hancock chairman and chief executive officer.

The program will also help address the issue of ``latchkey'' children, or those who are left for several hours after school without supervision. Educators, social workers, and law enforcement officials have expressed increasing concern in recent years as school budget cuts eliminated after-school activities just at a time of dramatic increase in the number of families where either or both parents work until well after school is out, or where the single parent is employed.

Hancock officials said they hoped guidelines for participating in the athletic program would work as an incentive for students to work harder in school.

Says E. James Morton, Hancock's chief operations officer, ``The right to participate in the intramural program will be linked to satisfactory attendance and academic performance, reinforcing for the students the importance of acquiring basic skills.''

Commitments for additional funds and in-kind services to get the sports program moving have come from the Boston schools, as well as from the city's Community Schools Program, which runs a variety of education programs in neighborhood school buildings. The goal is to have intramurals accessible to all middle school students by the end of the program's second year.

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