A soccer team practiced on a ragged field without goals. A baseball team worked out on blacktop speckled with broken glass. Track and field athletes were reduced to sharing uniforms and gear to compete.
Worse, an untold number of students in the Boston Public Schools were unable to participate at all in interscholastic athletics because they failed to achieve the required minimum grade point averages.
It was 2009, but it could have been almost any previous year. Boston’s public high school athletic system had been rife for decades with inequities and inadequacies in serving its many economically disadvantaged students.
Then came Scholar Athletes, a transformative civic charity created by construction magnate John Fish after a Globe investigative series in 2009 exposed the chronic deficiencies that had plagued generations of student-athletes in the Boston Public Schools.
Scholar Athletes filled gaping holes, first providing sorely needed supplies, then shifting its focus to academic support and helping to ensure that thousands of students remained eligible to play sports and receive high school diplomas. Hundreds entered colleges and universities, thanks in part to Scholar Athletes.
In all, the foundation spent more than $25 million on direct services to more than 27,000 students whose passion for sports in many cases kept them coming back to school and off the streets.
Now, Scholar Athletes is defunct, done in by the pandemic, Fish said. And the Boston school department is exposed again as having little will to finance and support a robust sports program. Certainly, it lacks a comprehensive plan to fill the void left by Fish’s initiative, leaving student-athletes across the city without the educational enrichment programs that had brightened the futures of many others.
Glaringly, the city’s spending on school athletics remains as substandard as it was 12 years ago, before Scholar Athletes began subsidizing the public offerings through its annual multimillion-dollar partnership with the district.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius described Scholar Athletes’ shuttering as “a huge loss.”
“We are immensely grateful to John Fish and Scholar Athletes for the programs they put in place for our student-athletes,” she said in an interview.
Cassellius said she is acutely aware of the inequities in the system’s interscholastic sports programs compared with suburban districts, especially for the large majority of students who do not attend the city’s three elite exam schools.
Cassellius said she intends to improve BPS athletics at every grade level by establishing “equitable programming across all schools,” in part by tapping the estimated $400 million in federal pandemic relief funding the district anticipates receiving, as well as some of the $36 million remaining from the district’s $100 million initiative to redesign the city’s array of high schools.
Fish, whose Roxbury-based Suffolk Construction is one of the country’s largest building contractors, said in a statement that the foundation’s demise “was an unfortunate result of an unprecedented pandemic that impacted numerous nonprofit programs, including ours.”
A hallmark of Scholar Athletes was mentors and tutors forging personal connections with student-athletes in so-called zone learning centers at the urban high schools. Remote learning during the pandemic curbed opportunities for those connections.
Fish said shutting down the foundation “is not a reflection of our passion for helping young people in the community. We remain passionate supporters of programs that help the underserved and underrepresented.”
By any measure, the foundation’s demise is a setback for Boston’s current generation of student-athletes.
“I’m shocked because I thought the program was soaring,” said Cassandra Teneus, one of its early beneficiaries as an All-Star basketball and volleyball player at Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, where she graduated at the top of her class in 2013.
Teneus later graduated from Framingham State University and is now a graduate student at Northeastern. She said, “I’m super grateful that Scholar Athletes was part of my life, and I’m very sad that it won’t be there to give future students the kind of hope and help that we all received.”
Not every high school in Boston fully embraced the foundation’s programs, but those that did racked up success stories. Avery Esdaile, the BPS senior director of athletics, said Scholar Athletes “was a great resource while we had it.”
Esdaile cited the foundation’s chief contributions as academic support, college preparedness, and mentorship. He said BPS is unlikely to replicate the program across the city but may try to target schools with the greatest needs.
Scholar Athletes was the product of then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s response to the Globe series, which documented poor conditions for student-athletes across Boston’s schools. The city’s chronically inadequate funding had perpetuated a second-rate sports system marred by an array of problems, from subpar facilities and insufficient equipment to a lack of opportunity to play some major sports, as well as anemic academic support.
In launching Scholar Athletes, Fish, as one of Menino’s key allies, enlisted backing from professional sports teams as well as colleges, universities, corporations, and philanthropies.
Serving on the foundation’s advisory board were the presidents of Harvard, Northeastern, Boston College, and MIT; owners or executives of the Celtics, Bruins, Patriots, and Red Sox; and leaders of State Street Corp., John Hancock Financial, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, among others.
Scholar Athletes arranged for student-athletes to secure full scholarships to BC, Curry, Regis, Wentworth, and Roxbury Community College, among other schools. Many received partial scholarships to institutions such as the University of Massachusetts, Stonehill, Suffolk, and Wheelock. Scholarships that have already been awarded will be honored, according to the foundation.
Fish’s annual gala for Scholar Athletes, staged some years at TD Garden, became a major fund-raising event, generating as much as $3 million annually.
But now the money has been spent, challenges persist, and early supporters of the foundation who were close to Menino have expressed dismay that Fish’s commitment to the foundation appeared to have waned, ultimately costing dozens of Scholar Athletes employees — most of whom are Black or Latino — their jobs during the pandemic and depriving future students of the foundation’s resources.
“It is disappointing and unfortunate that this key support for youth in our city has been lost,” said Dot Joyce, who was Menino’s communications chief and advised him on developing the Scholar Athletes program through the partnership with Fish.
BPS, meanwhile, has continued to scrimp on athletics, spending $76 per pupil in 2020, less than half the state average of $161 and drastically less than wealthy districts such as Concord-Carlisle, which spent $821 per pupil, according to the state education department.
Consequently, sports such as cross-country, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, ice hockey, lacrosse, tennis, and wrestling, which are common in neighboring districts, are still nonexistent or often difficult to access for Boston students, unless they attend Boston Latin School, which routinely makes several of the sports available, thanks to alumni funding.
Most suburban districts charge participation fees to help fund athletics, but that model is unfeasible in Boston because about half the city’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged.
In 2020, BPS spent about $3.9 million on athletics, less than a third of 1 percent of its $1.3 billion budget. Statewide, school districts spent an average of 1 percent of their budgets on athletics. The BPS investment remains nearly unchanged from 2009, despite the total schools budget increasing by more than 35 percent over the period.
Cassellius said spending on athletics will increase in the 2023 budget. She said the district will continue to benefit from Mike Harney’s Play Ball Foundation, which has helped to build and sustain the city’s middle school sports programs, and will maintain smaller partnerships with entities such as the YMCA, Tenacity, Boston Scores, Shooting Touch, the 3Point Foundation, and Harlem Lacrosse-Boston.
Since Esdaile arrived in 2014, some incremental improvements have occurred, such as high school teams receiving new uniforms every four years. Some fields have been upgraded and others are scheduled for improvement. The quality of coaches has been enhanced, and the coaching ranks have remained stable, particularly in football and basketball.
But scarce public funding continues to create shortcomings, especially for long-overdue facility projects. In 2013, Fish pledged $5 million to partner with the city on a $45 million renovation and expansion of 76-year-old White Stadium in Franklin Park, which hosts scores of high school football, soccer, and track and field events each year. But after Menino left office in 2014, his successor, Martin J. Walsh, tabled the project, citing other pressing budget priorities, and it remains tabled.
Esdaile said he is “pushing every button” to encourage the city to install a turf field and new track at the stadium.
“With resources and funding, obviously you have to make tough decisions,” Esdaile said. “But if we can get White Stadium turfed, it would be an asset not only for us in athletics, but also for BPS and ultimately for the city of Boston.”
Fish found ways other than the stadium project to help mitigate inequities in BPS athletics. At its peak, Scholar Athletes employed 58 staffers, including 40 who tutored and mentored student-athletes in the learning centers. Colleges, universities, and medical centers also provided volunteers, including doctors who conducted preseason physical exams for needy students.
With learning centers operating at 17 Boston high schools, Scholar Athletes increased the graduation rate of the student-athletes it served to about 95 percent, from about 84 percent a decade earlier. The college acceptance rate for the learning center participants reached 93 percent in 2018-19, the program’s last full year because of the pandemic. A comparative figure from 2009 was not available.
Scholar Athletes also has shut down classroom learning centers it managed at four high schools in Springfield, as well as one at Everett High School. Fish collaborated with Encore Boston Harbor to launch the Everett center in 2017, while Fish’s Suffolk Construction was building the multibillion-dollar resort and casino in the city.
Boston school officials credited Scholar Athletes with helping to boost participation in athletics, particularly by helping students meet the minimum grade point averages. Between 2009-10 and 2018-19, the last full year of interscholastic sports before the pandemic, participation among BPS students rose nearly 10 percent — to 5,424 from 4,941, according to data collected by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The gains were largely driven by the exam schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and O’Bryant School of Math and Science — where participation in interscholastic athletics spiked by 31 percent — to 2,295 from 1,749.
Several other schools posted significant gains, including TechBoston Academy, which reported 415 students participating in 2018-19, up from 140 in 2009-10, and New Mission, whose numbers rose to 290 from 126.
But participation sank by as much as 50 percent over the same period at several large schools whose enrollments also sharply declined: Burke, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, and Brighton High School. Cassellius said she has challenged Esdaile to ensure that “our comprehensive large high schools have similar [athletic] programs as our exam schools so they are attractive to students and parents.”
Scholar Athletes created another another vital resource by launching an intramural sports program that was serving more than 1,500 high school students before the pandemic. Intramural sports provided not only recreation and a sense of community but a safe alternative to dangerous streets in some sections of the city for students who were not able or not eligible to participate in interscholastic sports.
Esdaile said BPS might try to sustain the intramural program through stipends to school employees, but it’s unlikely the program will continue citywide.
As Scholar Athletes closes, there is no shortage of students who fondly remember the guidance and inspiration they gained from tutors and mentors who served as examples of the success they could achieve through athletics and academics. Those student-athletes, in turn, became models for others in their communities.
Scholar Athletes “had a ripple effect across countless families,” Fish said. “The legacy of this program will live on.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.