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Sports Sacrificed as Students Look to Small Schools

Anthony Macias sits in a classroom of 13 students on a weekday morning at Vanguard High School in Manhattan. He is working in a peer-editing session with a few students on a recent essay assignment. As the students work on their papers, the teacher and a teaching assistant walk by to offer suggestions.

When Macias decided to enroll in this small high school in the Julia Richman Education Complex on the Upper East Side three years ago, he knew he’d be in an intimate learning environment. Macias also knew he’d have to make some sacrifices. His academic desires would be fulfilled, but his yearning to play sports would be neglected. It’s one of the tradeoffs of attending a small high school in New York City with limited resources.

Macias is a football and baseball player but can’t compete in either sport at Vanguard because Julia Richman’s athletic department only fields teams in boys and girls soccer, basketball and volleyball. So, when school ends today he won’t be heading off to baseball practice like he wishes.

The best Macias, a junior, can do is play football at Wadleigh High School in Harlem where he tried out and now plays cornerback for the varsity team.

His humanities class is indicative of all classes at Vanguard, with constant dialogue between the students and faculty. As a basis for graduation, students are assessed on their performance on in-depth projects that include a formal presentation in front of a panel of teachers, students and professionals.

These project-based assessments take the place of standardized tests. That, coupled with the close relationship between the faculty and students, is what makes Vanguard attractive to parents and students like Macias.

“I came to this school because of the lack of Regents tests and the small classes,” Macias said. “The teachers, they really know you.”

The creation of small schools is a staple of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to overhaul the public school system. Since September of 2005, 149 new secondary schools have opened as part of the new small-schools initiative. Each year, new schools open throughout the five boroughs with the intent of creating smaller and more intimate classes for students similar to ones at Vanguard.

The Department of Education hopes small schools will foster academic rigor as students and faculty closely interact. There’s no mention of athletics by the Department of Education – for good reason.

As schools are increasingly pressed to make academic achievement a priority, athletics have become an afterthought.

“When you offer a good idea like this, something suffers,” said George Johnson, Vanguard’s basketball coach. “To this day, it’s been sports.”

When larger schools break up, they lack the space and money to maintain their own sports programs, so they merge with other schools. Vanguard holds roughly 370 teenagers on two floors at the Julia Richman Education Complex. The complex, which is broken down into six schools, holds over 2,000 kids – and they all compete for spots on the varsity teams.

Most schools with that many students offer more than just three sports – increasing the chances that a student will be able to get involved. Stuyvesant High School, with 3,036 students for instance, offers 26 athletic teams including football, fencing and swimming. DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx has more than 30 teams. Vanguard has a swimming pool but can’t afford to hire a coach, according to Johnson.

“I think that’s a little bit too bad,” said Deborah Meier, founder and director of a network of highly successful small public high schools in East Harlem and an important catalyst for the small schools movement. Her schools sent roughly 90 percent of their students to four-year colleges. Meier admits that her vision may have neglected sports.

“I do think small schools probably do less,” she said. “There are tradeoffs you have to make in public education.”

The burden is on principals to submit requests to the Department of Education if their students show an interest in developing a new sport. But few of those requests are granted, according to Mike Abernathy of the Public School Athletic League. Each new school starts out with no teams, so building a program can be tough.

Most new schools begin with about 100 students and a handful of faculty members. It takes time to develop enough of an interest and the funding to hire coaches, and schools usually start with an intramural sports program.

Vanguard has been around since 1994. The school has sustained itself long enough to develop an interest in new sports. According to Johnson, there’s a huge demand for baseball and track and field by the students.

But sports have never been Principal Louis Delgado’s priority.

“Most of my students aren’t going to be in the NBA,” he said. “I want them to be articulate and confident so they can land a job when they get out in the world.”

After every class, Delgado walks up and down the fourth floor hallway striking a gong, ushering students – often by first name – to their next class. It’s what the school uses instead of bells. He knows almost all the kids on a personal level. It’s the kind of student-principal relationship found only in a small school like Vanguard – the sort of relationship that couldn’t be duplicated at a large school. Students have to decide what’s more important for their futures, Delgado said.

Coaches also feel the impact of working at a small school with limited resources for sports.

Luis Flores has been the boys soccer coach at Vanguard for seven years. Each afternoon in the fall when his players suit up for practice he’s never sure where to tell them to go. Vanguard’s soccer team doesn’t have the necessary permit to secure a field each afternoon because there are too many teams and not enough fields.

The team usually walks to a small field on 96th Street, Flores said. He packs up all the equipment into his car and drives over to the field, often arriving 15 minutes late by the time he finds parking. That field is first-come, first-served, and priority goes to teams with permits. Flores says he either asks whoever’s on it for a little space or directs his kids to another field.

“We run there as a warm-up,” he said with a smile.

By the time Flores hauls the equipment back into his car and finds a spot close to the next field, it’s about 30 minutes into practice. Flores operates alone because the school can’t afford an assistant coach for the 25-man roster. His team had a losing record this season.

“It would be nice if we were like a regular school,” he said.

Macias doesn’t just see sports as a hobby. He hopes playing at Wadleigh High School will give him an opportunity to go to college.

“I might try to go to junior college for football,” he said.