When Simon Cataldo first began working for Teach for America in 2008 at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, N.Y., admittedly, he struggled to form a connection with his students.
In what he described as an “act of pure desperation,” the Concord-Carlisle alum led the worst behaving boys from his special education class out to a concrete handball court.
And in that after school session, he taught those boys the basics of lacrosse.
The results were immediate.
“Right away, they began listening to me,” Cataldo recalled. “The kids just became obsessed with the game and it translated to their performance in the classroom.”
A few months after Cataldo first introduced his students to lacrosse, they posted the best state exam math scores in school history by special education students.
The Frederick Douglas administration approved Cataldo’s fledgling after-school program, which began incorporating mainstream students the following year.
In 2011, the program was officially designated as a nonprofit.
What started as a group of 11 kids playing with 10 lacrosse sticks on concrete courts is now a national organization comprised of 22 programs, operating across five cities, serving 828 students.
The mission is to “empower the children who are most at risk for academic decline and dropout to reach their full potential,” with lacrosse serving as the foundation for improved athletic and academic performance.
In order to achieve that goal, Harlem Lacrosse employs one program director, per gender, at each member school, offering round-the-clock support and guidance.
The program first expanded to Baltimore in 2014 and opened a Boston chapter in 2016 with Dorchester’s TechBoston Academy serving as the first site. This year, it has expanded to the Young Achievers and Mildred Avenue middle schools, with the latter experiencing the highest participation rate of any member school in the country.
Adrian Heneveld, the regional director for Boston, expects two more middle schools to join the fold this fall.
“We’ve heard a lot of stories from teachers on the transformations they’ve seen from students in our program, who previously had bad behaviors,” said Heneveld. “Lacrosse helps them learn self-regulation. A lot of it is confidence. Lacrosse gives them something to identify with and helps improve their social and academic skills over time.”
Since its inception, Harlem Lacrosse has helped 100 percent of participating students graduate middle school on time. Students in the program pass their classes at a rate 20 percent higher than their peers and a total of 80 students have earned over $27 million in financial aid to attend preparatory schools or colleges.
Corneilia Davis, an eighth grader at TechBoston, recently became the first member of the Boston chapter to receive full financial aid for prep school with help from the program. She will attend Cushing Academy in Ashburnham this fall.
“[Lacrosse] helps me manage my time and academics,” said Davis. “I’ve been a part of the program for two years and I’ve learned how to be a leader and follow the beat of my own drum.”
Davis is following in the footsteps of the first Harlem Lacrosse participants, Malcolm Akinje, now a sophomore at Tufts University.
A 6-foot-2, 315-pound standout in both lacrosse and football, Akinje is a computer science major and doubles as a data analyst on the Tufts football team. The New York City native joined Harlem Lacrosse while attending Frederick Douglass Academy and often studied past midnight while applying to preparatory schools.
With help from program directors, he received financial aid to attend Groton School, eventually becoming captain of the lacrosse team and a first-team Independent School League selection.
“The biggest thing Harlem Lacrosse has instilled in me, is that life is hard, but the only thing you can control is where you wind up,” said Akinje.
“You have all the tools to change your life.”
In many instances, the program has helped students utilize those tools.
When Myles Smith applied to join Harlem Lacrosse as a seventh grader at FDA, Cataldo said his grades weren’t up to the standards outlined by the program or Smith’s mother.
Smith was allowed to practice, but not play in games or mixed scrimmages. He stuck with it and became one of the top performers in the program the following year, earning a full scholarship to Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H, before enrolling at the Kent School in Connecticut. There, he became the first African-American lacrosse captain in program history.
Now a junior on the Bates College lacrosse team, he frequently speaks at fundraising events for Harlem Lacrosse.
“I was instantly put into a family,” said Smith. “They weren’t just coaches who ran practices, they were people shaping me into a well-rounded man. Whatever I needed, I knew I could count on them.”
Cataldo first took his students to Concord Academy for an overnight trip in 2011, and the tradition of helping inner city kids visit suburban and rural boarding schools has become an integral part of the program’s success.
“We’re trying to help kids develop skills before they get to college to integrate themselves socially as well as academically,” said Cataldo.
“With inner city kids, the social-emotional strain can lead to dropouts, so boarding school can help ease the transition.”
For the relatively new Boston chapter, lacrosse can serve as a way to change the academic culture through athletics. Avery Esdaile, athletic director for the Boston Public Schools, is optimistic about the future of Harlem Lacrosse.
“It’s been great to see a program widening the participants’ perspective on what they can do athletically and academically,” said Esdaile. “Like we’re always trying to do with athletics, it plants the seeds of greater knowledge.
“The program has [the students] best interests in mind and we’re already seeing the results in terms of greater access to education. The gatekeeper to that access is lacrosse.”Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.