A teacher at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury recently asked his eighth- graders to write about the disenfranchised. The topic hit home for Tomell Kelley, a refugee from the Liberian civil war who has spent much of his youth raising himself while his mother has struggled to make ends meet.
Two years ago, Kelley was often absent or asleep in class, according to the staff at Orchard Gardens, one of the state’s lowest performing schools on standardized tests from 2003-10.
Now he is a prized student, one of many in the Boston middle schools who have turned around their lives, thanks in part to a group of charitable young professionals who have committed more than $1 million over three years to create interscholastic sports programs for the city’s 11,500 students in grades 6 to 8.
Bringing fun and competition to long-barren athletic venues, the nonprofit Play Ball Inc. has established football, baseball, volleyball, and double Dutch jump rope leagues throughout a cash-strapped system that previously offered middle schoolers only basketball and track.
School officials said the results have been striking - on the field and in the classroom. Giving the children an athletic outlet and team experience has helped many focus more effectively on their studies and to gain a more a optimistic outlook on life.
“To say that Play Ball and athletics have positively impacted the Boston schools understates everything that has happened,’’ said Andrew Bott, principal of Orchard Gardens. “It’s a great example of how a partnership between a private foundation and a large public school system can benefit thousands of kids.’’
In principle, Play Ball is similar to the nonprofit Boston Scholar Athlete program, which Mayor Thomas M. Menino, with the help of private philanthropy, established after a Globe series in 2009 detailed widespread deficiencies in the city’s underfunded athletic system. While the BSA has enhanced participation, playing conditions, and the academic performances of students in existing high school programs, Play Ball has addressed a major inequity for middle schoolers by providing their first opportunities to play interscholastic sports that have long been available to their suburban counterparts.
School Superintendent Carol Johnson said the program is vital to strengthening the system’s comprehensive commitment to sports, health, and wellness.
“With Play Ball’s help, we are building a strong middle school athletic program that engages our young men and women in developing the habits we are trying to establish with our scholar athletes in the high schools,’’ Johnson said. “We are leveling the playing field for kids across the city.’’
Kelley is one of six student athletes at Orchard Gardens who credit Play Ball with helping them receive generous financial aid offers from Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury and Xaverian Brothers in Westwood. Kelley plans to attend Catholic Memorial, which this year will send nearly all its graduates to four-year colleges.
“My whole take on things has become more positive since I started playing football,’’ he said after acing his essay on the disenfranchised. “I used to look at school work as annoying and kind of a drag. Now I want to get my work done and see the reaction on my teacher’s face when I do a good job.’’
Two years into Play Ball’s three-year commitment to the city, the foundation has created 52 interscholastic sports teams at 22 middle schools. Additional teams are planned, according to Play Ball’s founder, Mike Harney, who pledged to raise the money needed to sustain the program for years to come.
Harney, 31, a senior vice president of a downtown investment bank, FBR & Co., has recruited 12 other young professionals as board members since he created the foundation in 2006. They have funded the initiative through their business connections, as well as proceeds from the annual Santa Speedo Run and charity cruises in Boston Harbor.
“We want to make sure the program continues to grow,’’ said Harney, a former lacrosse player at Concord-Carlisle High School and Georgetown University, who lives in Charlestown. “We want to show people how important it is to narrow the gap between the opportunities the kids receive in the city of Boston compared to the suburbs.’’
While Play Ball pays for uniforms, equipment, coaches, referees, and transportation, the school department provides insurance, scheduling, training for coaches, and monitors academic eligibility. Johnson helped by funding a new position in the athletic department dedicated to middle school sports.
By all accounts, the program has drawn praise throughout the system.
“Obviously, the economics of the day wouldn’t allow the city to do what Play Ball is doing,’’ said Gary Palmieri, who has coached Play Ball teams at the Murphy K-8 School in Dorchester and Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury. “Believe me, the teachers, coaches, and students recognize how special these opportunities are. We’re all grateful for them.’’
Orchard Gardens is in the midst of an ambitious turnaround project that involves an array of new programs. Bott said the school is improving thanks in part to a core of students who have made good use of leadership skills they developed on Play Ball teams.
Kelley, whose mother speaks limited English and works long, hard hours as a hospital housekeeper, said his half-hearted approach to school changed when he began playing football in seventh grade.
Substandard grades, poor attendance, tardiness, and disrespectful behavior carried consequences that suddenly mattered to him; either he improved his school performance, or he couldn’t play football. Kelley said he came to appreciate how much playing the sport made him feel better about himself, his school, and his community.
“Football helped mold him into a man,’’ said Peter LeRoy, the dean of students at Orchard Gardens. “Now he’s a leader on the field and in the classroom.’’
Kelley’s teammate, Eric Hall, was accepted at both Catholic Memorial and his top choice among Boston public schools, Snowden International at Copley.
He remains undecided.
“The chance to play football made everybody, including me, try twice as hard in the classroom,’’ Hall said. “We’re definitely in better shape physically and mentally than we ever were.’’
School officials across the city stressed the urgency of reaching at-risk students before they finish middle school.
“If they get to high school on the wrong path, it’s very hard to reach them then,’’ said Sean McIndoo, who coaches baseball and is responsible for student discipline at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown. “A lot of times, it’s too late.’’
McIndoo credits the fact that students must meet academic and behavioral requirements to play sports for the dramatic changes in attitude he has witnessed among many student-athletes.
“It’s amazing how the kids who were an issue before aren’t an issue anymore,’’ he said. “It builds up such amazing confidence and self-esteem for them to be able to do things they have never done before.’’
Several high school coaches said they expect to reap the benefits of the middle schoolers participating in Play Ball programs. Many of the students had never played an organized sport.
“One of the biggest problems you have as a high school coach in Boston is kids who don’t know what it means to be on a team in terms of making the grades, showing up on time for school and practice, and being a good teammate,’’ said Paul Mahoney, who coaches baseball at the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester after more than 20 years of coaching at city high schools. “That’s all changing now.’’
It’s changing for girls, too, as hundreds have joined middle school volleyball and double Dutch teams.
One of the most heartening images has been eighth-grader Norioscar Cabello, who uses a wheelchair, playing an active role on the Orchard Gardens volleyball team.
Cabello, whose teammates take turns pushing her wheelchair during pregame running exercises, has emerged as one of the team’s best servers.
She said the experience has helped her conquer her fear of embracing new challenges.
She has joined the Orchard Gardens dance ensemble and has overcome her anxiety about entering a new school - the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers at Northeastern University - in the fall.
“This has been a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me,’’ Cabello said. “It has changed my life.’’