a league of his own

A teacher's crusade to bring competitive sports to small schools

David Garcia-Rosen, pictured top left, poses with his International Community High School Baseball Team that he coaches through the Small Schools Athletic League.
David Garcia-Rosen, pictured top right, poses with his International Community High School Baseball Team that he coaches through the Small Schools Athletic League. (Photo courtesy of David Garcia-Rosen)

What David Garcia-Rosen started as a single-column spreadsheet has turned into a 17-page report and a mission to provide more team sports opportunities to New York City students at small high schools.

Garcia-Rosen, the dean of International Community High School, released a report this week that criticizes the way the Public School Athletic League funds schools’ sports teams. He is recommending that the Department of Education overhaul the way it funds school sports so that schools can decide whether to join the PSAL, a private league, or the Small Schools Athletic League, a counterpart to PSAL that he himself created to meet the needs of small schools’ athletics.

Closing large, struggling high schools and opening small schools in their place has been a hallmark policy of the Bloomberg administration. But the schools’ athletic league did not change its formula for funding school sports at the same time, leading small schools to have lagging athletic programs, Garcia-Rosen said.

“The PSAL was designed for big schools. They haven’t made any adjustments or innovations to meet needs of small schools,” he said. “I have watched how discipline and dropout and a lot of those issues plague our schools, and I really believe sports is a key element that could help.”

Garcia-Rosen founded the SSAL in fall 2011 after becoming dean of his South Bronx school, which serves only English Language Learners. He said in the 15 years he spent teaching at three different small schools, he was always disappointed that none had interscholastic sports teams or received support from the PSAL, which the Department of Education funds.

The 110-year-old PSAL currently supports thousands of teams at more than 200 high schools, and many small schools participate through their shared campuses. But if a school wants to add a team, it must apply to the PSAL for funds to pay for coaching staff and officials for league games, which makes up the bulk of the cost of having a team. The PSAL approves or denies the school’s request based on several factors, including availability of regulation facilities, level of student interest, and whether the school has qualified coaches. Its approval is also contingent on the league having additional funds, which it often does not.

Garcia-Rosen said that after PSAL denied International Community funding for cricket and baseball teams, citing insufficient funds, his principal agreed to use the school’s budget to underwrite a boy’s soccer team for the fall. Toward the end of the season, a principal at a nearby high school, who had also paid for a soccer team out of the school budget, set up a tournament with the two teams.

“My kids won a trophy and they acted like they won the world,” Garcia-Rosen said. “Their whole demeanor, the way they carried themselves really changed.”

At that point he decided to create a league of his own.

Garcia-Rosen has grown the Small Schools Athletic League to 37 high schools that compete in baseball, soccer, and volleyball. To date, almost 2,000 student-athletes have competed in more than 500 games, he said.

But the SSAL is completely funded by principals from school budgets, and that’s not sustainable, Garcia-Rosen said.

“We want this league to show the demand, ability, and need for athletics in small schools,” he said. “That’s why we took the next step to reach out to the PSAL … Our hope was they were going to see what we’ve done and work with us, but that didn’t go quite as planned.”

Instead, after Garcia-Rosen approached top PSAL officials a year ago to propose a collaboration, they asked him to prove the need for a small schools league, he said. That’s when Garcia-Rosen began digging deeper into data posted on the education department and PSAL websites and noticed trends that he characterized as alarming.

Schools that have very few teams have much poorer students than schools with dozens of teams, he found, and schools in the Bronx and Manhattan tend to have far fewer teams than schools in Queens and Staten Island. Schools with more white students have more thriving athletic programs, too. (The findings reflect the fact that the shift to small schools has been most concentrated in areas with many poor students of color, a trend that advocates have decried.) Large swaths of students attend schools where, at some point in the year, there are no teams for either boys or girls, or both.

Garcia-Rosen presented his findings in April to top PSAL and education department officials, but they did not make any immediate changes.

Since then he has thrown himself deeper into his crusade. He produced the 17-page report, which is flush with charts. He sent a public information request to the city for a list of all schools that have requested PSAL teams over the past 10 years and details about whether and why the schools’ requests were granted or denied. And he started circulating an online petition that asks for more funding for the SSAL, which so far has 229 signatures.

“I truly believe that when [Chancellor] Dennis Walcott and his leadership team look at this report and the statistics … they will work with us to come up with the best solution for student athletes,” Garcia-Rosen said.

But the Department of Education is not convinced that small schools need any special attention when it comes to competitive sports. “Most of the teams in the PSAL are small schools and the majority of the schools in the Small Schools Athletic League already have PSAL teams,” said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman.

Still, Garcia-Rosen said, there are some schools with no PSAL sports at all, and others with very few. He is proposing an overhaul to the city’s funding formula so that every school would have at least six interscholastic teams, and larger schools would have more — he suggests an additional team for every 100 students, up to a cap of 20 teams. If schools want more than 20 teams, they would have to fund the costs out of their own budgets. For all of the teams, each school could decide whether to participate in the PSAL, the SSAL, or some other private league that meets their sports needs.

“It’s all about thinking outside the box, thinking creatively. That’s what this league is all about,” he said. “I think the resources are there. It’s just a matter of being efficient and… not doing things the way they’ve been done for 50 years.”

The largest city schools currently field more than 40 teams, and asking them to fund half of their athletic programs would represent a major expense. But Garcia-Rosen said he hopes large schools would understand the need for fairness in giving all students the opportunity to compete in interscholastic sports.

“I think there are solutions on the table [so] that schools wouldn’t have to lose their teams,” he said.

The advantage of a school joining the SSAL is that it is uniquely designed to fit small schools’ needs, which include schools with large English Language Learner populations and transfer schools, Garcia-Rosen said. Many of these schools have students who are 19 years old or older, which means that they are not eligible to play in the PSAL. Plus, when small schools field PSAL teams, they must compete against teams that pull from a much larger student population, which can result in disheartening skill disparities.

Garcia-Rosen’s report also points to research finding that students who participate in sports are more likely to succeed in school.

Teacher and baseball coach Dominick Passafiume from Metropolitan High School in the Bronx said he has seen those benefits firsthand. Currently, the PSAL funds three teams at Metropolitan, but after joining the SSAL, more than double the number of students can now participate in school sports, he said.

“I had a group of guys who really wanted to be a part of it, and in order to be a part of it, I held them to a high standard academically,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of change, a lot of positive attitude toward the school … and school pride.”

Passafiume’s baseball team won the SSAL championship last year, but he said he recognizes that when the school’s budget starts to get tight, funding for the team might get cut.

Assistant Principal Wallace Simpson of Essex Street Academy said the campus he’s on, Seward Park, has nine PSAL teams. But there are five schools in the building, with about 2,000 students total. As the varsity basketball coach, Simpson said he can only take three to five students from each school, which means a very small percentage of students at each school gets to participate in organized athletics. So Essex Academy, which has no PSAL teams of its own, created a soccer team with SSAL. The campus also runs its own intramural basketball program in the spring where 10 teams can compete against each other.

“PSAL can’t really serve the needs of all the kids that would like to participate,” he said.

Garcia-Rosen’s full report is below:

The Inequitable Distribution of Sports Funding by the PSAL Public Copy

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.