By Craig LeMoult
Twelve-year-old Harlem native Basilio Garay invented a robot. Not just any robot, but a robot that serves as a base coach for baseball games and runs on water.
“This is good, Basi,” said Basilio’s teacher, Nefretari Bey, after reading the young boy’s creative writing assignment aloud at Harlem’s Junior High School 99. Basilio’s choice for the imaginary invention assignment wasn’t surprising, given how the seventh-grade Yankees fan spends his afternoons.
He is one of more than 600 kids who are part of Harlem RBI, an after-school program that uses baseball to teach kids much more than how to hit or catch a ball. Bey is a tutor in Harlem RBI’s “Homework Zone,” helping Basilio and six of his teammates with their school assignments. On this day, the lesson followed a team meeting that focused on teamwork and leadership skills.
In recent years, youth sports have seen an increase in competitiveness that many feel has replaced the fun and playful nature of the games. Several state legislatures have even passed laws levying stiff penalties against people who attack referees, following a spike in the number of violent incidents, often involving parents. The Citizenship Through Sports Alliance issued a national report card last year that gave the nation’s youth sports programs a D on both parental behavior and child-centered philosophy.
But a new breed of youth program is popping up around the country that embraces sports as a way to teach children much more than lessons on the field. After-school programs in everything from squash to ice-skating are using sports as a platform to teach young people about literacy, self-esteem, conflict resolution and leadership.
America Scores, a national after-school program with chapters around the country, uses soccer as a hook to teach literacy skills to kids. On-field practices are balanced with essay and poetry writing.
“I think at first they sign up for the soccer, and the writing is just something they have to do,” said Naomi Santos, education director for the New York chapter. The New York Scores curriculum includes “poetry slams” in which students recite their original poems in front of coffee-drinking crowds at local Starbucks.
The Hoops and Leaders basketball program teaches leadership skills while matching each young player with an adult mentor.
“This is, of course, part of a much larger issue that goes beyond sports, which is the debate that has occurred for a long time: whether after-school programming should be academic or should not be academic.” said Dr. Gil Noam, director of the Program in Education, Afterschool and Resiliency at Harvard.
Noam says the consensus over the last several years has been that the programming should be both. He says more professionals accept the notion that after-school programs should support academic work without becoming test-driven or taking on the responsibility of classroom teachers.
Jeffrey Beedy, the co-host of the upcoming national meeting and founder of Sports PLUS, a nonprofit group that supports using sports as an educational medium, stressed the importance of reaching kids through sports while they are still playing.
“We live in a highly competitive, organized youth sport world, where 45 millions kids play every year,” he said. “The highest number [of players] is at age 10. But by the time they’re 14, 75 percent of them have dropped out. So we have to do this.”
For 12-year-old baseball player Kenneth Coar, Harlem RBI seems to be making a difference. He says he’s moved up on his school’s honor roll from a “bronze” category to “silver.” And he doesn’t seem at all worried about Saturday’s scrimmage against the eighth graders.