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In Philly schools, can sports and arts be saved as an afterschool refuge?

Under a bright-blue North Philadelphia sky, Coach John Sullivan runs around a grassy field in gym shorts and a T-shirt, teaching the Dobbins High School football team lessons in follow-through.

Two players shuffle side-to-side separated by a line of small orange cones. Dobbins’ imposing facade towers high above them. In the far distance, beyond a maze of train tracks and power lines, the city’s skyline glistens.

Sullivan blows his whistle.  The players collide in the tackling drill, their pads crunching. “Keep moving the feet,” Sullivan yells. “Wrap ’em up!”

The players stalemate, pushing each other sideways until they fall. The screech of Sullivan’s whistle again fills the air. He calls for the players to get back up and do it again.

Repetition. Discipline. Teamwork. Follow-through. It’s the creed of high school football.  And it’s why some educators, like Sullivan, argue that team sports should join art, music and theater as extracurricular activities to be preserved even amid the Philadelphia School District’s fiscal crisis.

For now, fall football has survived the ax, but many other extracurricular activities face uncertain fates thanks to the budget shortfall.

Surrogate familes

Sullivan, a native of Northeast Philadelphia and graduate of Archbishop Ryan High School, used to work in the business world. When the company he worked for was bought out, he accepted a severance package and then  pursued his dream of teaching, despite the lower pay.

“I was here for a week when I realized I made the right decision. I had more satisfaction in a week of doing this, than in 12 years of the other thing,” said Sullivan, now a 14-year veteran of teaching history and coaching Dobbins Mustangs football.

Sullivan has come to see just what follow-through – specifically in the structure of extracurricular activities – can do for students who can otherwise tend to fall through the cracks.

“I’ve seen them grow,” he said. “I’ve seen so many kids that they’ve given up on, that school will tell me: ‘This kid probably shouldn’t play,’ and I’m telling you if you saw him by his senior year, he’s one of the more upstanding kids in the school.”

Linebacker John Young has seen the change in his own life. Now going into his senior year, Young says he didn’t start taking schoolwork seriously until football taught him the payoff for dedication.

“It helps you learn responsibilities and discipline so you can be better at school and get better grades, and hopefully be better in life,” he said.

Each year’s team becomes like a surrogate family, Sullivan says, for kids who often face daunting struggles oitheir personal lives.

“One of these player’s parents was just shot a couple times right before camp,” Sullivan said, “But guess what? That happens every year. Every year something like that happens. He calls me the day before camp and says, ‘You know, coach, my mother was shot last night.’ So that’s what they deal with … every one of these kids, you can get a struggle story from every one of them.”

And it’s not just the boys on the football team.

“A lot of us have a really rough life outside of cheerleading,” said Toni Caldwell, captain of the Dobbins competitive spirit team.

With a look of cool poise, Caldwell laughs and says she used to have an anger problem. She went to a counselor as a kid, but that “therapy didn’t really do much.”

Instead, joining the competitive spirit team became her grace.

“This gave me all the skills I need to know,” the rising senior said. “I can work with people, I’m not as shy anymore. When the uniform comes on, it’s a different persona. I know I have to lead a family. Cheerleading pretty much gave me the life that I have now, and if you were to take it away, you’d pretty much be taking away half of my soul.”

Found money

When budget woes led the school district to announce in June that there wouldn’t be any money for art, itinerant music teachers or fall sports in the new school year, it hit Caldwell hard.

“Oh my gosh, I cried,” she said, “I’m so serious.”

Then the district announced in late July that they had found $16 million in additional district savings.  That, along with some other new revenue worth $17 million, led the district to say it would restore some of those beloved programs.

“I do think it’s a bluff,” said Dobbins’ offensive coordinator Martin Baldwin, a 14-year vet of the district. “I think it’s politicians playing political football.”

Baldwin says he’s seen adults with power too often play brinksmanship with kids’ emotions.  “I’ve seen it too often for it not to be intentional,” he said.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said it was “frustrating” to hear that this notion is out there.

“The reality is that we did have to layoff and cut services due to a $304 million dollar shortfall in our budget. That is not a made-up emergency,” said Gallard. “It’s a heartbreaking reality for all of us who work in public education.”

So how does a cash-strapped school district just ‘find’ an additional $16 million dollars?

“We’re a $2.3 billion dollar organization,” said Superintendent William Hite. “Unfortunately there’s still some inefficiencies … and we’ve tasked staff to look at every single part of this organization to determine where we could realize some savings.”

Hite, who rejects the allegation that the district used extracurriculars in a manipulative way, says the $16 million figure came from laying off employees, as well as creating greater efficiency in how the district manages line-items such as inventory, procurement, transportation and school food services.

Priorities

No matter the timing, others challenge the premise that the district should channel newfound money into  extracurriculars while basic educational needs remain unfunded.

As a district referee and coach, Christine Donnelly understands that “a lot of kids come to school solely for extracurriculars.” But as a laid-off guidance counselor, she says she was “appalled” to learn that the district prioritized her position below art, music and sports.

“It was pretty shocking to me to think that sports are more important than the role of a counselor,” said Donnelly, a six-year veteran of the district who is currently hoping to get her job back at the Academy at Palumbo.

“It just makes me feel like what I do is not important,” she said.

Hite says his decision was made based on direct appeals from students who argued for an enriching life outside the classroom.

“Students indicated that’s what was important to them. It’s the type of things that represent schools for them,” said Hite.

What about the rest?

The district has now also received the $50 million dollar assurance from the city that Superintendent Hite said was necessary to bring staffing to a “functional” level and allow schools to open on time.

But this money only begins to flesh out a budget that, to many, still looks skeletal. It brings back day-to-day essentials such as noon-time aides, secretaries, and in some to-be-determined cases, assistant principals and guidance counselors.

Outside of fall sports (funded at $2.5 million), extracurriculars still have zeroes on their budget lines.

For the 2012-2013 school year, the district spent $12.2 million dollars on extracurriculars ($7.4 million for sports, $4.8 million for the rest.)

Even though art teachers and itinerant music teachers have been rehired through January, those positions only cover instruction during the school day — not the activities that run before and after school.

“There was no discretionary money in the operating budget this year,” said Masterman principal Marjorie Neff. “Unfortunately it’s going to be a very ‘up-in-the-air’ scenario for the kids when they come in.”

The school district says it will only be able to fund extracurriculars and spring sports if it gets what it wants in concessions from its labor unions. The district seeks $103 million in savings from a new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and $30 million from unions representing administrators, noon-time aides and school police.

If the district gets everything it wants from labor, the state will likely kick in the $45 million dollars currently now in limbo awaiting the state education secretary’s judgment whether the district has adopted a “reform agenda.” This would provide the district a total of $178 million dollars against the original $304 million shortfall and help restore more programs, services and another 1,700 staffers.

The PFT has consistently said that its members have already contributed mightily to balancing the district’s finances, and to expect that much in concessions is unreasonable.

Competing with the world

Gomian Konneh, a rising senior at Masterman, is a bit of an extracurricular wunderkind who’s hoping her impressive resume will propel her from her East Oak Lane rowhome to the ivied halls of the University of Pennsylvania.

“I want to be competitive with the world internationally,” Konneh, 17, said.

She’s plays violin in the orchestra, sings in the choir (for both Masterman and All-City), paints sets for the stage crew, acts in the musical, as well as being a part of student government and peer counseling.

Now, her life outside the classroom hangs in the balance as Masterman scrambles to see what it can offer at current funding levels.

Konneh’s principal, Neff, says that, absent additional district funding, the burden will fall on Masterman’s home and school association to raise private dollars. She doesn’t yet know exactly what her HSA will be able to contribute, and what programs she’ll be able to revive.

But Neff knows one thing for certain: next to Masterman – with its heavily-involved, comparatively affluent base of parents – other schools around the district will end up offering students much less.

“Unfortunately, you’re going to have the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ across the district, because there’s going to be some schools where they just don’t have the capacity to raise money to reinstitute after-school activities for kids,” said Neff. “That shouldn’t be. Every kid should have access to activities.”

To some extent, extracurriculars in city schools have long been at the whim of outside dollars and personal charity. Schools rely on non-profits to fund programs. Teams raise money to afford their uniforms and go on trips. Coaches, music directors and club leaders typically make little money and work hours that far exceed their contractual obligations. Some assistants aren’t paid at all.

Despite further cuts and uncertainties, most coaches and extracurricular leaders interviewed for this story said that they’d be willing to keep programs alive — even if only on a non-paid, volunteer basis.

Kim Nue, music director at Masterman, expects the HSA there will come through with some resources to keep her extracurricular programs going.  Even if it doesn’t, she says she would run seven different music-related extracurriculars – before and after school – by herself, for free.

“I would do it anyway for the kids because I can’t see them not having it,” she said.

Coach John Sullivan put it this way, “If you break it down, we’re probably making 50 cents an hour. So if they weren’t going to pay us, I think most of us would do it anyway. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s really about the kids.”

Fighting for the future

Masterman senior Konneh, who is also on a student advisory board that meets with  Hite, says her her mission now is to advocate for the generations coming after her.

She feels pretty confident that the resume she’s built through years of determination will get her into a good college.  But, she asks, what about the younger kids who may face more crowded classrooms and slim after-school options?

Solutions will only come, Konneh says, by convincing lawmakers in Harrisburg to change their views of Philadelphia and come up with a funding formula that better suits the needs of the district. She wants them to see Philadelphia not as a “cesspool,” but instead as she sees it: a diverse, world-class city of the arts:

“‘If they just stepped in our shoes and … our experiences, and just put a face to an actual person or human being, you would see that we’re much more than their stereotypes and their generalizations.”

For Coach Sullivan, who admits his football team is “one of the lucky ones,” satisfaction comes from knowing that just by showing up, day-in, day-out, he can at least provide students with some structure and a grass field where, if only for a couple of hours, they can chase life’s problems away.

“They need something to come to, to feel as though they’re safe, you know what I mean?” he said. “I know we’re in the middle of a tough neighborhood, but look, it’s kinda beautiful here, isn’t it?

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