With End Of Soccer, Hartford High Students Denied Yet Another Goal
August 24, 2010
Where I live in West Hartford, the town is overflowing with soccer. A few miles away, the sport is dying.
At the nation's second-oldest public high school, in a city teeming with immigrants and refugees well versed in the world's No. 1 sport, there will be no varsity boys soccer in Hartford this fall.
I'm told there are sound reasons why Hartford Public High School won't have a team shortly after the World Cup captivated people around the globe: It costs too much, and not enough students want to play.
If it's between a reading teacher or a soccer coach in a city with some of the lowest performing schools in the state, I understand tough choices have to be made in a district trying to save itself.
Certainly, when poverty is the biggest enemy, there are more important things than sports. But I can't help but think we are losing something vital here as the gap between the haves and the have-nots yawns wider and we struggle to figure out how to eliminate the achievement gap that divides rich and poor and black and white.
"Kids need an opportunity beyond the classroom,'' said Neil Sullivan, principal at Simsbury High School and outgoing president of the Central Connecticut Conference, which includes Hartford. "It's part of the overall program, just as things like performing arts and student council. Anytime schools start dropping sports, we as a conference have a concern."
Eliminate sports for city kids, and the message is pretty clear: This isn't for you.
"It doesn't make me feel good,'' said Adam Johnson, a principal at Hartford Public, which also has eliminated wrestling and tennis programs in recent years. "Probably more so than in any community, our kids really see the school as home. When you dip into these type of things, you are taking away something that might be a support system for kids."
"We probably have the raw talent to have incredibly successful teams, with the large numbers of refugee and immigrant students,'' Johnson said. "The burden to recruit and have a structured coaching program is greater on us. Our kids have so many demands."
Add to this the fact that the school district is reorganizing, moving away from large high schools to create smaller academies. More sports are likely to face elimination.
Hartford Public actually pulled the plug on its boys soccer team in the middle of last season, when there weren't enough players to field a team.
I've seen the struggles that coaches and teams face with other sports, such as baseball, which takes years of practice. Soccer, however, only requires a ball, a field and a lot of running. Have we really reached the point in Hartford where you can't convince a couple of dozen boys in a high school of 1,600 students to go out for the team?
It's no mystery why the elite private schools around Hartford require students to play a sport. It creates better students.
Years of research shows that students involved in sports or other extracurricular activities are more likely to succeed. They are more likely to show up for class and less likely to be substance abusers. They understand rules, listening and working with others. They watch less TV. They are better adjusted, and their grades are better.
Sports and after-school programs make kids feel like they are a part of something greater. Sports "are immensely important to all students but particularly important to city students,'' said Joe Canzanella, athletics director for the New Haven schools, who told me about the value of just traveling to other communities to play games when your whole world has been a city neighborhood. "It gives them an extra incentive and an extra opportunity to develop."
To Mike Savage, director of the Connecticut Association of Schools and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, it's a question of equality.
"You take Glastonbury and they have everything. And then you go to Hartford.,'' Savage said. "These kids aren't being treated in the same way."
Urban educators face immense challenges every day and city schools must evolve. But as Hartford moves to reorganize its schools, sports shouldn't be tossed aside.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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