Boston to get school athletics boost

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Boston to get school athletics boost
Foundation created to funnel millions to underfunded programs, hire coaches

By Bob Hohler, Globe Staff | August 3, 2009

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino will announce today the creation of a multimillion-dollar charitable foundation and consortium of professional sports teams, colleges and universities, and corporations to enhance opportunities for Boston student-athletes – a potential breakthrough for Boston’s chronically underfunded high school athletic system.

The partnership plans to boost the annual athletic budget for the Boston public schools over the next three years from about $4 million to an average of $6.5 million, a 61.5 percent increase with the potential to restore the system’s respectability. Menino launched the initiative after a Globe series detailed deep-rooted inadequacies in equipment, facilities, coaching, and academic eligibility in the school sports system.

“It’s a new renaissance for the athletic and academic programs in the Boston public schools,’’ Menino said Friday. “These kids need help, and we’re going to give them that little extra to make sure they’re successful.’’

In an innovative collaboration that grants a private organization unusual power in managing public schools, Roxbury-based Suffolk Construction Co.’s Red & Blue Foundation will administer the new Boston Scholar Athlete Program. Foundation officials – including a new executive athletic director and chief academic officer – will report directly to Menino and participate in hiring and evaluating coaches.

Initial indications are that the Boston Teachers Union will agree to the arrange ment. “I think we’ll be able to work this out,’’ union president Richard Stutman said yesterday, “but the people in each school need to have a say in who gets hired.’’

Suffolk CEO John F. Fish, whose foundation contributed $1 million to launch the initiative, said the mission is to promote academic achievement through athletic success.

“The kids in the city of Boston deserve this,’’ said Fish, whose foundation has spent millions of dollars building and improving facilities for disadvantaged youth. “The business community, the pro teams, and the colleges and universities will be good partners in making this a reality.’’

The city for many years has spent less than a half-percent of its total budget on athletics, far below the state and national averages.

“In an economic crisis like we’re having now,’’ Fish said, “it’s almost incumbent on the businesses and citizens of the community to step forward and say: ‘They need our help now. Do we truly want to make a difference?’ ’’

Menino said he expects “100 percent’’ participation from Boston’s professional sports teams, which previously indicated to the Globe that they would contribute to the cause if the city asked. Every major college and university in Boston has also agreed to provide goods and services, including academic tutors, through the foundation, Menino and Fish said. Brighton-based New Balance also has pledged major support, as has Dorchester-based Good Sports, a nonprofit that distributes athletic gear to needy youths.

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg,’’ Fish said of the community’s financial support.

The program is expected to provide some relief to Ken Still, the city’s lone athletic director for 18 high schools. In addition to providing administrative support, the foundation will have the time to raise money and organize clinics to improve coaching and participation in school sports.

Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson expressed enthusiasm for the program, particularly its emphasis on academics. She helped Fish develop standards such as classroom attendance and grade point averages to measure the program’s success.

“The academic and athletic pieces together are the strength of this initiative,’’ Johnson said. “It’s a lot more focused on both than we’ve had before.’’

Johnson said Still, who was on vacation and not available for comment, was “excited because it’s really an investment in developing the coaches and helping with equipment and uniforms . . . I think he sees it as a really important partnership.’’

The program marks the start of a new era for the city’s coaches. Although Boston boasts some of the best in the state – coaches expert in teaching sports and highly committed to ensuring their athletes succeed as students and citizens – many others in the city lack the proficiency, mentoring skills, and dedication required for their players to thrive.

The foundation plans to establish new job criteria for coaches that stress academics and mentoring. Foundation officials also expect to play a key role in hiring, despite the city’s contract with the Boston Teachers Union, which grants teachers preference and gives headmasters the final authority in hiring.

“The Red & Blue Foundation, with the mayor and the superintendent of schools, needs to have the authority to select coaches,’’ Fish said. “If we don’t have that authority, it’s impossible for us to control the outcome we’re looking for.’’

Stutman, the union president, applauded the effort to upgrade the athletic system but indicated that teachers may be less receptive to waiving the contract’s hiring rules. Boston high school coaches rank among the best paid in the state, with stipends next fall ranging from $4,947 for volleyball and soccer coaches to $10,778 for football coaches. Still, he said, an accommodation can probably be reached.

Fish said the foundation aims to raise $2 million in cash and in-kind contributions this school year, $2.5 million the following year, and $3 million in 2011-12.

With schools scheduled to open in less than six weeks, the foundation’s immediate goals are hiring the new executives, recruiting board members (Linda Whitlock, former CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, already has joined), and launching a plan to improve the system one sport at a time, first with boys and girls soccer this fall. Fish said every soccer player in the city will receive new uniforms and the equipment they need, including soccer goals for teams that practice on fields lacking them.

The foundation also plans to stage school fairs to encourage students, particularly girls, to participate. Several large high schools, including Charlestown, Dorchester, Hyde Park, and South Boston, fielded no girls soccer teams last year, partly because of low interest. Fish said the foundation will fund intramural soccer programs at schools without interscholastic teams.

“We need to get kids off the street corners and out of their houses watching TV in the afternoon,’’ he said.

The foundation’s schedule calls for overhauling boys and girls basketball teams next winter, then baseball and softball in the spring. Football and field hockey will be upgraded in the fall of 2010, followed by boys and girls indoor track that winter. In spring 2010, the foundation plans to launch the city’s first boys and girls lacrosse teams.

Teams scheduled for upgrades in 2011-12 are cross-country, ice hockey, and outdoor track.

The plan also calls for academic incentives. Once a year, the city will stage a gala celebrating high school athletes, especially those who get good grades.

“We don’t just want great athletes,’’ Menino said. “We want scholar-athletes who can cut it after their athletic days are over.’’

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