Ned Eames uses tennis to boost inner-city reading skills and graduation rates

Tennis helped Ned Eames thrive during his childhood – now he uses it to help Boston kids improve their reading skills and stay in school.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ned Eames runs Tenacity, a fast-growing nonprofit that teaches tennis and literacy to middle-schoolers and some high school youths. He’s eyeing expansion to elementary schools.

At Umana Middle School Academy in East Boston, it's easy to pick out some of the best students: They're the ones with tennis rackets.

The middle school is one of five in the city that has invited Tenacity, a nonprofit organization that teaches tennis and literacy, into its doors during or after school.

Kids in the program meet three or four times a week for three-hour sessions of playing tennis and studying English and language arts. "They're definitely our strongest academic students," says Umana principal Alexandra Montes McNeil of the approximately 75 students at her school who participate.

Ned Eames, Tenacity's founder and president, started the program 12 years ago to reach students who were in danger of dropping out of high school.

About 60 percent of Boston's high school students graduate. But the number for students in the Tenacity program is considerably higher: About 95 percent of them graduate. And Tenacity doesn't cherry-pick the top students to make its graduation rate look good.

"We do not cream the crop," Mr. Eames says. "These are the kids that are floundering."

Tenacity sessions, held both during the summer and school year, include equal parts tennis and academics, with tennis as a big lure and unifying activity. About 5,000 kids participate in its summer programs at 30 sites, and about 200 students at five middle schools take part during the school year.

Tenacity also offers less formal academic and personal support to another 200 high school students. All of its programs are free to students.

Summer sessions look much like a typical summer sports camp, with counselors leading activities for groups of yelling, laughing, running kids. But this camp has mandatory reading time, too.

One July morning at a session on the tennis courts on the Boston Common, an urban park, kids gather under a tree with a counselor to read silently or aloud from books on their summer reading lists.

Each camper must attend at least two weeks of the six-week summer session. The school year program is more demanding. Students must commit about 10 hours a week, and parents must agree to attend certain events and open their homes for visits from the Tenacity staff.

Though Tenacity students spend half their time playing tennis, no one is claiming that they're going to become stars.

"It's really about tennis as a means to an end," Eames says. "We're not a program that talks a lot about how good our kids get at tennis."

Instead, they talk about how good their kids get at academics.

Tenacity students in middle school make 1.8 to 2.5 years of progress in English and language arts for each year they spend in the program, Eames says. He knows that because when students sign up for the program, parents must agree to share student test scores with Tenacity.

Richard Wilson, part of the first school year Tenacity class in 1999, says he was touched that Eames "actually cared and thought that I could go to college, and thought that I could be a successful person, which is something I didn't hear much in my life." Mr. Wilson later volunteered at Tenacity for eight years because he felt that he owed so much to Eames.

"As I got older, he didn't just toss me to the curb," says Wilson, who will study communications this fall at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Eames, he says, showed him "that I can make it, and that there are opportunities out there."

Eames spent his early childhood in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Byfield, Mass., north of Boston. When he was 12, his father became a community organizer at a low-income housing project in Worcester, a blue-collar city west of Boston, and the family moved there.

"As a teenager in a family that was going through as much change as you can imagine," Eames says, "tennis became the one thing that I could really hang onto."

After college, he spent a short time playing minor-league tennis before eventually earning an MBA and starting a career as a management consultant.

But after eight years working in New York, he says, "This idea kept coming to me: tennis. And it was very disconcerting because there was nothing in the world of tennis that I knew that I wanted to do."

A friend urged him to visit the New York Junior Tennis League, which provides lessons to kids free of charge. He decided he wanted to start something similar back in Boston.

In Tenacity's first year 40 students participated in the school year program and 1,100 in the summer program. Today those numbers have more than quadrupled.

In the future, Tenacity plans to start workshops for elementary students and their parents and provide more guidance to high school graduates who are in post-secondary schools or the military.

But Eames says he doesn't want the program to grow too fast – or go nationwide – if it would mean sacrificing quality.

"We don't want to be selling our soul to have to raise the money we'd have to raise to go national," Eames says. "We'd just like to be focused right here."

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• For more photos of Ned Eames and Tenacity, click here.

• For more stories about people making a difference, click here.


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