How Private Organizations have Changed Boston Public Schools

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How Private Organizations have Changed Boston Public Schools
We examine the contributions Play Ball! and the Boston Scholar Athlete Program have made to athletics in Boston Public Schools.
It wasn’t that long ago that the state of athletics in Boston Public Schools was downright dismal. Teams did not have a fully equipped field to practice. Some were even left to run practice drills in alleyways, because space was not available on school property. There were not enough uniforms to go around, leaving teammates swapping sweaty shirts with one another in the midst of competitions.
But when the sports weren’t available, even in this less than ideal state, high school and middle school students were left with too much empty time on their hands when school got out. Pay-to-play, an option seen in many of the wealthier suburban school districts nearby, simply didn’t cut it in a district where 75 percent of the student population lives below the poverty level. The quandary seemed to be growing deeper and deeper – until two Good Samaritan organizations stepped in.
Boston Scholar Athletes Focus on Athletics, Academics
In 2009, Boston Globe reporter Bob Hohler did a series on the miserable state of affairs in Boston Public Schools athletic programs across the city. After visiting every school in the district, Hohler found that many of the problems within the system boiled down to a lack of money, according to a report at WBUR. After the reports were published, Boston Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson began receiving calls from individuals and organizations that wanted to help.
One of those individuals was John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction. Fish responded to the news by establishing the Boston Scholar Athletes program, a program designed to increase athletic opportunities for students in Boston high schools. According to the organization’s website, the primary mission of Boston Scholar Athletes is to give kids a chance to excel on the court and in the classroom. On the athletic end, the organization has pledged money every year to provide everything from training for coaches to all-star games for athletes.
Students in the Zone
The organization has also created the Boston Scholars Athletes Zone, a learning center located in 19 area high schools to give students a safe place to study and get academic assistance. A separate report at WBUR states that the zone is equipped with pencils, paper and even laptops to help keep students on the right academic track. The equipment is often unavailable to students at home or in the classroom, so providing devices and Internet access can be a huge boon to student achievement.
“Oh, I love the zone,” Yissa Guerrero, a student at Jeremiah E. Burke High School, told WBUR. “It’s like another home. You come in the zone and you get your work done. It’s a place where you can have fun, but it’s productive.”
Guerrero told the news outlet that she tries to make it to the zone daily, even if it’s just for a few minutes. As a relatively typical Boston student being raised by a single parent, Guerrero said the zone is helping her raise her grade point average and has now got her thinking about college. When she first started coming to the zone, her GPA was 2.0. Now it is up to a 4.09.
Each zone location is staffed by a facilitator who performs the tasks of a mentor and tutor simultaneously. These individuals work with students daily to help them overcome obstacles and stay on task. Students are given the assistance they need to succeed, but they are also expected to take responsibility for their schoolwork, athletic performance and overall behavior. According to the organization website, 92 percent of students attending the zone maintain athletic eligibility. Members of the zone are more likely to graduate from high school and score higher on college entrance examinations.
Middle School Students See Sports Action
While Boston Scholar Athletes is working hard to keep kids on the field and in the classroom, Play Ball! is bringing the joy of athletics to middle school students in the Boston district. Michael Harney, founder of Play Ball!, played sports throughout his childhood, high school and college years, so he understands the important impact athletics can make on a student’s academic achievement. His organization is dedicated to providing funding for middle school athletics that have not been available to Boston students in the past due to funding issues.
“I grew up, and I think a lot of the guys on the [charity] board grew up, playing sports with their classmates and having that higher standard held,” Harney told WBUR. “So I think that’s really been how we remember it, and I think [sports are] really helpful because it helps build school spirit and it keeps kids focused during the daytime.”

According to the Play Ball! website, the organization provided funding for the first middle school football league in the city school district. Today, the organization funds four different sports, consisting of a total of 40 teams. Sports include football and baseball for boys, and double Dutch and volleyball for girls. Currently, more than 1,000 middle school students in the city are participating in competitive sports funded by Play Ball!.
Both Harney and Fish appear to be in the Boston athletic scene for the long haul. Each overseer of their organization works diligently to ensure funding for programs continues so that students in future years will also be able to reap the benefits of school athletics. Fish would like to see Boston Scholar Athletes eventually expand to other urban school districts across the country. Play Ball! uses the slogan, “More feet on the field.” While the program currently involves around 1,000 middle school students, there are more than 12,000 middle schoolers in Boston. Plenty of room for expansion, as far as Harney is concerned.

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