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Starting A Track Team

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

I believe that extracurricular opportunities are a vital part of high school education. For me, participation on my high school cross country team helped me become both a good runner and a good person. I had some great teachers, but no single individual at my high school impacted my life as much as my cross country coach. A classroom teacher is not always best situated to convey lessons that seem to crystallize in the arena of sports. With running, for instance, it is easy to see how consistent effort over time leads to clear improvement, a correlation sometimes lost to kids as they struggle with academics. Because of this personal background, I have long wanted to be a coach as well as an educator.

The Brooklyn Arts Academy, as a new school, had no tradition of athletics. So in my second year, I partnered with the physical education teacher and successfully applied to the PSAL (Public School Athletic League) to start an indoor track team. After a bureaucratic process that involved a trip to Long Island City, we were given the go-ahead. In January, we put up flyers around school and began recruiting.

We were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response when 40 boys and girls showed up for the after-school information session. Unfortunately, the twin hurdles of getting a medical examination and paying the participation fee dwindled our team’s starting membership to 15. The students, mostly junior girls and sophomore boys, were more or less new to organized athletics, having grown up without T-ball or AYSO soccer. This meant we not only needed to condition them physically, but also teach them about what it meant to be members of a team. For starters, we had to make sure they all had proper footwear.

Compounding our challenge was the matter of being a track team without a track. Our facilities amounted to a small weight room, a 60-meter-long eighth-floor hallway, and the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, a short jog from school. On the plus side, our principal found money in the budget to buy team uniforms and it was amazing to see how a single article of clothing made students feel like they were a part of something special. It didn’t even matter that we had no mascot and the jerseys only bore the name of the school.

We built upon their pride by pushing them and praising them. We took them outside to run intervals in the Brooklyn Bridge Park on one day and had them running relay races in the hallway the next. We urged them to keep going when they complained they were tired and ended each practice by bringing everyone together to talk and stretch.

In the best of times, we were like a family. One particularly fond memory was when we celebrated the birthday of one of the athletes by bringing out a cheesecake for the team after practice. The young man was so touched that he was nearly in tears, and proceeded to cut the cake and make sure everyone had a piece, before proudly bringing the rest home to his parents. Staying past 5 p.m. everyday was a big commitment for our athletes, some of whom had other responsibilities, but the students felt justifiably proud when they left the building after almost everyone else had gone home.

It was much harder to keep the students feeling good about themselves once the competitions began. I too was embittered by the experience, and left with questions about the limitations of the small school model to provide viable extracurricular opportunities. I’ll discuss this experience in my next post.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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