SquashSmarts: Education with a Penn pipeline

Philly organization benefiting middle and high schoolers relies on bevy of staffers from Penn squash community

· May 15, 2014, 4:20 pm   ·  Updated May 15, 2014, 10:14 pm

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The SquashSmarts middle team celebrates a team victory at Franklin & Marshall College in February.


There are thousands of row homes in North Philadelphia. There is only one Lenfest Center.

You recognize that when you walk down North 10th Street in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philly. On one side of the street are the row homes, joined together not just structurally but by the muted shades of pale yellow and sienna they share. The decades-old houses blend, but what’s on the other side of the street doesn’t.

That would be the Lenfest Center, a 52,000 square foot space for educational and athletic opportunities for youth of all ages throughout Philadelphia that opened in September 2007. Five giant, brightly colored stick figures are built into the structure of the building, three of them even holding hands.

Stranger still, on the second floor of the Lenfest Center are eight professional-quality squash courts, which in turn share the floor with several classrooms and a kitchen.

But it all makes sense. After all, since its founding in 2001, SquashSmarts has been a free nonprofit afterschool program using squash and its own academic curriculum to increase high school graduation rates in some of the most underresourced schools in Philadelphia. That means the program’s 120 students meet at SquashSmarts’ two locations — the Lenfest Center and Drexel’s Daskalakis Athletic Center — three days a week for roughly an hour each of academics and squash.

The program serves fifth- through 12th-graders, with its students typically entering the program in fifth through sixth grades. The vast majority of the program’s students attend the Lenfest Center practices based on proximity, and the students compete in periodic squash tournaments as well.

Throughout its 13-year existence, SquashSmarts has relied heavily on a long pipeline of staffers and volunteers from the Penn community, particularly Penn squash. 2000 College graduate Andrew Hopkins, 2007 College graduate Gilly Lane, 2010 College graduate Sydney Scott, 2010 College graduate Britt Hebden and 2012 College graduate Trevor McGuinness (class of 2012), are just a few of the volunteers from the Penn squash program over the years. SquashSmarts’ current middle school academic director Steve Brown is a Penn Graduate School of Education alum.

It’s another Steve, though — SquashSmarts executive director Stephen Gregg — who is checking in on everyone before the start of practice. Roberto Clemente Middle School eighth-grader Belkis Garcia comes up to Gregg with some big news.

“I just got into Constitution High School,” Garcia says excitedly. Constitution High School is a city-wide admissions school.

“That’s great!” Gregg responds, giving Garcia a high five.

“You know, that may not seem like a big deal, but that’s what we’re all about,” Gregg says later.

Indeed, SquashSmarts was originally founded in response to falling high school graduation rates in Philadelphia.

“At any given time, we probably have 15-20 of those kids who are probably in a state of flux,” Gregg says. “There are a lot of home issues, school issues, kids are transferring and maybe they’re not under certain care, or custody issues.”

So SquashSmarts has developed a curriculum of 12-14 units that run throughout the year on a variety of topics, some of which follow its students’ school curricula, some of which departs from them. Units are available on organizational skills and study habits, including sessions on resume-building, SAT prep and interviews.

And it helps. Gregg says that the program has had 100 percent of its seven-year seniors graduate high school and get accepted to college. About 95 percent of SquashSmarts students who spend three-plus years in the program matriculate from grade to grade, including what Gregg identifies as a critical transition between ninth and 10th grade.

“The hurdles become higher in high school, students may not be academically prepared,” Gregg says. “They may be entering working age, 15, 16 years old, getting a first job to support a family or a household. The peer pressure to perhaps not be in school is great.”

Room for SquashSmarts

The Philadelphia public high school graduation rate was 64 percent for those starting in 2008 and finishing in 2012. While that percentage has climbed the past two years, the Philadelphia school system is still reeling after laying off 3,783 employees in June and is said to be trying to deal with a projected $304 million deficit. So there’s room for SquashSmarts in Philadelphia.

“I sort of joke with our staff and our kids [that] I know SquashSmarts is a success when I don’t have a job,” Gregg says. “When my students graduate and come back to replace me as executive director, as squash directors, as academic directors of this program, to me, that’s the sort of lasting change we’re after.”

Sakora Miller was a SquashSmarts student from sixth through 12th grade. Now she’s a full-time squash director with the program, pairing students together in various squash courts and overseeing the squash side of practice. There are papers posted throughout the squash courts noting that squash has been named the healthiest sport in the world by Forbes magazine.

“When they played, they were able to take the tools that we as coaches gave them and combine that with the stresses of life and hit some very nice shots,” said Wick Clothier, who interned at SquashSmarts in 2009 and is now the program manager for US Changed from “U.S. Squash” to “US Squash” according to official website Squash. “They were also some of the funniest and brutally honest kids I have ever met in my life, which was very entertaining and refreshing.”

Two volunteers, one from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and one from Temple University, are on hand today to help out on the academic side of things, but Miller’s thinking about another volunteer on the squash side of SquashSmarts.

“Gilly Lane’s been really great to us, coming out and volunteering,” she says while on the subject of volunteers.

Lane, an assistant squash coach at Penn and Philadelphia native, has given SquashSmarts students squash lessons and talks on how squash can be a source of educational opportunities for students.

“You take away how fortunate you are growing up,” Lane said. “The kids there want to learn and they work really hard. They know they’re in this program for a reason, to help improve them personally on the court, in the classroom.”

The SquashSmarts investment

SquashSmarts’ recruitment philosophy is based on commitment, not ability. SquashSmarts staff members will meet with homeroom and gym teachers at its partner schools — which include Bayard Taylor, McMichael, Roberto Clemente and the Overbrook Educational Center — to introduce SquashSmarts, also setting up field trips with those teachers so students can become aware of what and where SquashSmarts is.

“They are put through a series of stages, academics, essay-writing, expectations, talking about what the program can do for them,” Gregg says, adding that the program takes on a new class of 20-30 kids each year.

SquashSmarts has a $500,000 operating budget each year and eight full-time members, with significant grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Hamilton Family Foundation and other foundations.

“It costs about $5,000 per year per kid, and that investment we think is significant in order to make the type of life change that we’re trying to create here,” Gregg says.

Through its relationship with the Wharton Nonprofit Board Leadership Program, SquashSmarts also has a second-year Wharton MBA student serve on its board of directors every year. The incoming Wharton member of the program’s board of directors is Julie Yang.

“Eighth-grade graduation can be a really big deal because for many SquashSmarts students, it may be the last graduation they attend,” Yang said. “I think the outcomes of keeping kids in school and on track can’t be understated and can really change lives and entire communities.”

Gratitude

While Miller leads squash practice, Brown is in charge of academics, and the students go to work in the middle school room.

“Really, really awesome start to all your projects so far,” Brown says to the handful of students poised to get to work in the middle school room. “Love how creative everybody’s been getting, love how some of you are coming to me in your off time saying, ‘Hey, would it be cool if I work on this until next time?’”

One student, Harambee Institute seventh-grader Zaynah Curtis, is taking her work very seriously. She’s reviewing a free verse poem she wrote called “Gratitude,” which advises her Harambee classmates to stop asking for “jays,” or Michael Jordan brand shoes, and accept what they have.

“Not saying I’m a good person, but where I go to school, everybody’s like, ‘Oh my god, I like those, I wanna get those, I gotta get those.’ My mom’s like, ‘Be happy with what you have and stop asking for stuff that you know you can’t get.’ So I wrote this,” she says.

She focuses on another virtue to write about: creativity.

“Since this is free verse, I’m gonna kind of be like, in my zone,” Curtis says.

For the next five minutes, she writes free verse nonstop. “Life is like a blank canvas, but once you put splashes of paint, it becomes your own,” the poem begins.

“She just sits down and writes. I just try to leave her be as much as possible,” Brown whispers over Curtis’ shoulder. “She’s unbelievable.”

Finally, Curtis is done. She calls Brown over.

“You just keep churning them out, right? ‘Here’s another masterpiece I wrote in 30 seconds,’” Brown says after reading her new poem.

“I know, that image really does kind of stand out, doesn’t it?” Curtis smiles.

This is the kind of encouragement that SquashSmarts strives for, and respectfulness is all around too. A couple of middle schoolers ask Brown politely to go to the bathroom. Another asks Brown for a favor and then stops midsentence, apologizing for not beginning his request with the word ‘please’. It doesn’t feel like the kids see Brown as a headmaster, though, but more as a supervising friend instead.

“In the same classroom we will often have a sixth-grader who is practicing algebra and geometry while sitting next to a seventh-grader who is working on addition and subtraction,” Brown says. ”Our project-based focus allows all students to challenge themselves, think creatively and explore their unique interests.”

At practice’s end, Brown announces an upcoming penny wars contest and then the students are dismissed. After socializing, the students pick up packages from Nutritional Development Services stored in the kitchen refrigerator on their way out.

General Philip Kearny School eighth-grader Shemar Esquelin, who was recently named captain of the boys’ middle school team for his positive attitude, hangs around to shake hands while many of his teammates file out onto North 10th Street, eager to come back again in another two days.

“It’s a great place here,” he says.

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