Their futures at risk, they were struggling at a Boston middle school. Kayla Lee Ortiz was coping with anger issues. Mason Houston’s grades were slipping. John Smith felt close to “getting caught up in dumb stuff’’ on the streets.
Those children at the Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester and hundreds of others needed more help — including athletic opportunities — than the Boston Public Schools were providing.
“For a lot of these kids, there was nothing for them in the Boston schools,’’ said William Houston, Mason’s father.
Aiming to fill gaps in Boston’s underfunded school athletics, a group of citizens — led by a teacher who grew up in Boston public schools — has launched a privately subsidized wrestling program to provide an outlet to vulnerable students.
In all, eight schools have wrestling teams in the city funded by the nonprofit Boston Youth Wrestling. More than 250 students are participating in the program, which started in 2012.
The early results appear promising. Ortiz, catching her breath after a hard-lost tournament match last month against a boy from Cohasset, said wrestling has given her a healthy way to channel her aggression.
William Houston said the program has helped his son improve his grades and confidence. Smith’s mother, Cereada Cannady, credited his immersion in wrestling with her not needing “to worry about him being out in the streets’’ near their home in Grove Hall. And similar stories are playing out in schools where the wrestling teams are taking root.
“The city hasn’t done much for them, but now some of the toughest kids in Boston are getting off the streets and growing because of this program,’’ said Steve Maher, a wrestling coach at Dedham Middle School. “Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, boys and girls — they’re all coming together as teammates. It’s fabulous to see.’’
Major gaps remain in Boston’s school athletics. The city still provides no access to sports such as lacrosse, field hockey, and golf. Only limited opportunities exist for students to participate in ice hockey, tennis, cross-country, and swimming on citywide co-op teams. And the system’s strained budget has all but eliminated hope that public funding will improve access.
But private benefactors have stepped in. With its districtwide ambitions, Boston Youth Wrestling has joined a multimillion-dollar campaign by nonprofits such as Scholar Athletes and the Play Ball! Foundation to shore up what critics say is a substandard system.
“A lot fewer kids are going to fall through the cracks because of it,’’ Houston said.
In 2009, Scholar Athletes, backed by Suffolk Construction chairman John Fish, began enhancing academic support for Boston’s student-athletes after a Globe series detailed deficiencies in the city’s school athletic system.
The same year, Play Ball!, founded by Michael Harney, a managing director of FBR Capital Markets in Boston, confronted a critical shortage of athletic opportunities in the middle schools. In 2009, only two sports were available to Boston’s 11,300 middle schoolers: basketball and track. Now, they can also participate in football, baseball, soccer, girls’ volleyball, Double Dutch, and a budding ice hockey program, thanks largely to Play Ball!
But wrestling went unfunded, except for city-supported programs at Boston Latin School and the small Josiah Quincy Upper School, which draws students from across the district to a co-op team.
Mary Tamer, a former Boston School Committee member, said initiatives like Boston Youth Wrestling’s are vital for many at-risk students.
“We need to pursue every avenue possible to keep those kids in school,’’ said Tamer, now the director of strategic projects for the Boston Charter Alliance of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. “Wrestling is the kind of value-added program that is essential to keeping them engaged.’’
A teacher takes action
Tamer was an early supporter of Jose Valenzuela, the founder of Boston Youth Wrestling. A seventh-grade history teacher at Boston Latin Academy, Valenzuela credits wrestling with transforming him from a struggling middle schooler, much like Ortiz, Houston, and Smith, into a graduate of Boston Latin School and Williams College.
He created the nonprofit with several of his former wrestling teammates at Williams.
“I’ve seen lots of kids go through the Boston public schools without ever having a positive experience,’’ Valenzuela said. “They never have a taste of success. They feel like school is not for them. Then wrestling comes along and they feel like they’re good at something. You can see what it does for them.’’
Valenzuela was 26 when he launched the foundation on a shoestring budget in 2012. Lacking fund-raising experience, he tapped his wrestling and teaching expertise to show charitable organizations he could change young lives. Soon, he began receiving support from the Lenny Zakim Fund, the Boston Foundation, the New England Patriots Foundation, and Josh Kraft, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, enabling his nonprofit to build an annual budget of more than $100,000. Valenzuela does not receive compensation.
Many suburban schools have chipped in, donating wrestling shoes and gear. So have private schools such as Roxbury Latin and Boston College High School. And the Boston Police contributed a wrestling mat, now used by a club team at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester.
But growth has not come easily. Boston school officials have rejected requests by several high schools, including Brighton and West Roxbury Academy, to launch varsity wrestling programs.
The city’s athletic director, Avery Esdaile, said he is not opposed to expanding access to wrestling. The chief impediment is money, he said. He also cautioned against launching varsity teams before they can sustain adequate participation levels.
“We’re all for having more opportunities for the kids,’’ Esdaile said. “We just need to figure out how that would look and how we would make it work.’’
For his part, Valenzuela views wrestling as more than an athletic opportunity. His top academic priorities include addressing a racial disparity in admissions at the city’s three exam schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.
School department data show that while 56 percent of the white males and 55 percent of the Asian males of exam school age (grades 7 to 12) in the Boston Public School system attend one of the elite schools, only 10 percent of the African-American boys and 10 percent of the Hispanic boys do so.
“We can do much better,’’ Valenzuela said.
His nonprofit, in addition to providing academic mentors for its wrestlers, has secured a grant from the Boston Foundation to launch a pilot educational enrichment program at the Frederick school, whose student population is about 88 percent black or Latino.
Tommy Simmons, the school’s wrestling coach, said he’s encouraged by early signs of improvement among students who have joined the wrestling team.
“Earlier in the year, about half of our kids had at least one failing grade,’’ said Simmons, who teaches eighth-grade humanities. “Now every single kid is passing.’’
Valenzuela hopes to expand the enrichment program to the other middle schools his nonprofit supports: the McCormack, Mildred Avenue, and the Eliot K-8 and Orchard Gardens K-8 schools.
The 250 students who competed this year came from a number of programs around the city, including high school club teams at West Roxbury Academy, TechBoston, and Madison Park. Most of the coaches are compensated with $1,250 stipends that are earmarked for BPS teachers who provide extra support for students.
But challenges remain. West Roxbury coach Brad Lewis said he raised an additional $1,000 from the community to equip his team. A chemistry teacher, Lewis said the contributions were necessary for the school to provide an athletic alternative for students who are coping with an array of hardships.
“A lot of our kids come from very challenging backgrounds,’’ he said. “They have limited parental support. Or they are new to the country and staying with relatives. Some have very unstable home lives. It’s huge for them when they find something they care about and gives them some consistency.’’
It has worked for Ortiz, one of six girls on the Frederick team. Her grades have improved. She is stronger physically and emotionally. She has made new friends and has begun embracing the value of sports and education.
“I feel like I can focus a lot better now,’’ she said. “If I lose a match, it’s OK because it’s still good to learn from my mistakes.’’
She hopes to wrestle in high school, if there is a team for her.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.