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SquashSmarts: "It Takes a Village" to Make a Difference for Urban Youth

By Jim Caton

As quirky as it may sound, a program that recruits middle-school students to pledge a seven-year commitment to playing squash after school has, for fifteen years, helped the School District of Philadelphia's underserved children find purpose- and accomplish more than many of them had thought possible. Listen to Steve Brown, director of SquashSmarts, talk about how his youth program achieves its great success, and you will soon notice one persistent theme: community. "Through the incredible efforts of our board members, staff members, volunteers, donors, and community partners," Brown says, "countless doors have been opened for our students to help them stay in school, in shape, and on track for graduation."

As the gap widens between America's rich and poor, opportunity and optimism slip from the reach of the disadvantaged. No group is in more desperate need of a chance than the children in the country's largest urban school districts. In Philadelphia, public high schools see a disheartening 64% (2013) average on-time graduation rate. Founded in 2001, SquashSmarts has sought to improve this situation with a mission "dedicated to improving the lives of underserved youth from Philadelphia public schools by providing intensive, long-term academic tutoring and squash instruction, while imparting high standards of personal integrity, health and fitness, and service to the community." But why squash?

"One of our most popular questions!" Brown responds. "At first, the idea of using a traditionally suburban sport like squash as the basis of an urban youth program can be a bit confusing for those unfamiliar with our model." As the saying goes, however, you can't argue with success, and Brown provides three main reasons for the success squash has demonstrated in enriching the lives of SDP students. First, he says, squash is healthy. In fact, he says, it is "the most heart-healthy sport played with a ball." In a city plagued with obesity, where many students have little or no recess or gym class and no access to after-school sports, SquashSmarts addresses an important need. "Squash gets them fit in a hurry due to its fast-paced game play and demand for stamina and speed," Brown says.

Once the students have been brought into the program, they are also provided with intensive classes on nutrition, which ultimately help them on the squash court and in the classroom. And the classroom is as important to the program's staff as is the court, putting the 'smarts' in SquashSmarts. In addition to squash and fitness training, the program provides assistance for the students' classroom success with two academic directors, one each for the middle school and high school students. In fact, academic support is first among SquashSmarts' "Five Pillars," the others being squash instruction, fitness and nutrition, personal achievement, and leadership. "I believe that all students have the capacity to be thoughtful, active citizens," says High School Academic Director Rachel Hallowell, "and I'm excited to join SquashSmarts where academics, athleticism and citizenship all come together."

In addition to its health benefits, Brown cites the sport's newness to the students as a selling point. "All of our students start at the same level on their first day," he says, "and gradually develop their skills as a unit." The unity created by the sport's novelty, Brown says, helps a great deal in creating the kind of community the program envisions, "a community of respect, patience, and teamwork." Which leads us to Brown's third reason for bringing squash to SDP students: "It's connected. The squash community may not be the largest, but it's certainly chock full of the most dedicated and generous people you'll ever have the pleasure of meeting." He goes on to list the groups of people- from the program's umbrella organization NUSEA (the National Urban Squash & Education Association) to the Philadelphia SquashSmarts board of directors, to staff, volunteers, donors and community partners- whose generosity make the program a success. And it is a big success. In a district where some neighborhood schools see graduation rates as low as 41%, in its fifteen-year history SquashSmarts has maintained a 100% graduation-on-time rate among its high school seniors. And of those graduates, 100% have gone on to college.

While Brown loves to see young students "catch the squash bug" and fall in love with the sport, clearly his sights are set much higher, and the idea of community provides the means of achieving that vision. "The success of SquashSmarts can be traced back to one word," he says. "Relationships. Never before has the 'It takes a village' mantra been more clearly on display." At the same time, for SquashSmarts, community is also a goal. A sense of shared responsibility, respect and appreciation is self-perpetuating- a healthy community regenerating itself. Brown notes that graduates of the program are starting to return and work as staff, including one former SquashSmarts student who recently returned from a two-year Peace Corps commitment in Africa teaching math to middle school-aged girls. "Our Executive Director Steve Gregg always says that he'll know when SquashSmarts has fully served its purpose when the graduates of the program come back and become the new coaches, teachers, mentors, and Executive Directors," Brown says. "We are well on our way towards realizing that dream, and it's due to the tireless efforts of every member of the 'village.'"

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An English teacher for twenty-five years, first at a college near Buffalo and then at...

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