It’s a decades old phenomenon: boys excelling on the athletic field but failing in the classroom and It’s a particularly troublesome issue in the African-American community.

The dream for so many young African-American boys is to play football on the college and/or professional level.

“We know what they’re doing in the classroom does not match the dream and the aspirations in their mind,” said William Polite, program manager for strategic partnerships for Wichita Public Schools.

Polite is heading up a team that’s rolling out a new program for USD 259 middle school football players. It’s designed to help make these young men the success in school, they’ll need to get a college football scholarship, a post-secondary education, and for a few a professional athletic career.

Polite knows what too few of our young men understand – without an adequate GPA, the right classes, or a high enough score on a college entrance exam, an athletic scholarship won’t be heading their way.

Towards that end, Polite said this program is working “to put the student in student athletes.”

It’s a first of its kind program for USD 259 to reach young boys who are at the bottom of the achievement gap. It’s a partnership between parents, USD 259 administrators and staff in the district’s central office and each middle schools, Wichita City League football coaches and of course the players.

Wichita doesn’t have competitive middle school football, so a large number of middle school students participate in the City League football program sponsored by the City of Wichita Department of Parks and Recreation. There are 13 organizations in the league, and Polite identified 390 City League players in USD 259 middle schools. The district rolled out the program to the players during a special assembly held earlier this month in the auditorium at the district’s Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center.

The meeting was one part pep rally, one part recognition and another part information about what it takes to make it as a student athlete. Coach Weston Schwartz, the head football coach at West High talked to the players about the importance of academics.

“The guys who make it in life are the guys who made it in school,” Schwartz told those in attendance. Only eight players from Wichita have made it in the NFL in the last 10 years, said Schwartz. “Every one of them had a 3.5 or above.”

Inspiring the players to greatness is a major part of the program. Greatness in this program means improved academic performance and a reduction in disruptive behavior. The ultimate goal is to prepare these players to excel in high school leading to great scholarship opportunities.

Competition

Since these are athletes, of course there’s a competition. Instead of competing on the football, in this program City League teams will compete in the classroom.

An end of the year award will be give the team with the highest grade point average, the team with the highest attendance rate, and the team with the fewest suspension or disciplinary referrals. In addition to competing by teams, the players will compete by schools.

“That way, the schools have some skin in it as well,” Polite noted.

School awards will be similar to team awards: highest GPA, highest attendance rate and least number of suspension/referrals.

Individuals will also be recognized with gold, silver and bronze medals. Polite says the criteria for the medals is still being worked out, but obviously someone with at least a 3.0, not referrals and perfect attendance would earn a gold medal.

If you have a long way to go to a 3.0, there will also be a recognition for the most improved.

At last week’s program kick-off, 147 players were recognized for having a 3.0 GPA or above. With 390 City League planners identified in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades, that’s just over a third of the athletes meeting a standard set by the program.

Not bad, said Polite, “but sad to say, there are a lot who are at the 2.0 or below level.

Preparation is Important

“Competition is one part, but preparation is another,” said Polite. In other words you just can’t expect student behavior, attendance and grades to improve, steps have to be taken to bring about the change. 

The program will include regular meetings with the players at their schools. Polite said the meeting will include motivational speakers, handouts and information, coaches and recruiters. He’ll also include former City League players; not just those who’ve done well, also those who haven’t.

“I want these guys to see, ‘I may be it today, but if I don’t take care of my stuff in the classroom, I may not be it tomorrow.”

To help improve grades, USD 259 will provide tutoring services. This summer, they’re going to try a pilot program around the player’s summer practice. Before practice — one, possible two or three times a week — USD 259 tutors will work with 5th grade players. The focus will be on math, an area where students in the district are furthest behind.

According to Polite, fifth graders were selected to help provide them with a “bridge” to Middle School.

Coaches and Parents

A major key to the success of the program are the coaches and the parents, Polite said.

“When a coach asks them to jump, they’re going to ask, ‘how high?’ But if a teacher asks them to pick up a pencil, a number of them are going to ask ‘why’?’”

That’s why one of the first meetings held to kick off the program was with the coaches.

“Every organization has said, yes (to participating in the program), but from saying it, to putting it into place, is a process.

If a coach emphasizes grades and makes getting grades a priority, combined with the support offered through this program, Polite says he’s certain the results will be positive.

Parents are another big influencer, so the program is designed to include regular meetings with the parents. An upcoming parent’s meeting will help parents understand the NCAA clearinghouse regulations for Division 1, Division 2, and Division 3 schools.

The alternative

Polite attended the KU versus K-State football game last fall and noticed there were only one student from USD 259 schools on each of their rosters.

“I talked to one of the assistant coaches and asked why they didn’t recruit more in Wichita? The answer was academics,” bemoaned Polite. “Even Newman, Kansas Wesleyan and Friends barely recruit in the City league.”

The result is a number of our players end up at a junior college and back in Wichita two years later sitting on a stoop or in county jail, said Polite. “They just disappear.”

By disappear, Polite means they don’t continue their education, they definitely don’t play professional ball, they don’t get the good jobs, too often they get locked up, and too often they die young.

“For many of our boys, this is really life or death and they don’t realize it.”

“From the top (Supt. Alicia Thompson) down, we feel we have something that can make a difference here.”

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Bonita Gooch

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...

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