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A teacher’s crusade to bring competitive sports to small schools

David Garcia-Rosen, pictured top left, poses with his International Community High School Baseball Team that he coaches through the Small Schools Athletic League.
David Garcia-Rosen, pictured top left, poses with his International Community High School Baseball Team that he coaches through the Small Schools Athletic League.

What David Garcia-Rosen started as a single-column spreadsheet has turned into a 17-page report and a mission to provide more team sports opportunities to New York City students at small high schools.

Garcia-Rosen, the dean of International Community High School, released a report this week that criticizes the way the Public School Athletic League funds schools’ sports teams. He is recommending that the Department of Education overhaul the way it funds school sports so that schools can decide whether to join the PSAL, a private league, or the Small Schools Athletic League, a counterpart to PSAL that he himself created to meet the needs of small schools’ athletics.

Closing large, struggling high schools and opening small schools in their place has been a hallmark policy of the Bloomberg administration. But the schools’ athletic league did not change its formula for funding school sports at the same time, leading small schools to have lagging athletic programs, Garcia-Rosen said.

“The PSAL was designed for big schools. They haven’t made any adjustments or innovations to meet needs of small schools,” he said. “I have watched how discipline and dropout and a lot of those issues plague our schools, and I really believe sports is a key element that could help.”

Garcia-Rosen founded the SSAL in fall 2011 after becoming dean of his South Bronx school, which serves only English Language Learners. He said in the 15 years he spent teaching at three different small schools, he was always disappointed that none had interscholastic sports teams or received support from the PSAL, which the Department of Education funds.

The 110-year-old PSAL currently supports thousands of teams at more than 200 high schools, and many small schools participate through their shared campuses. But if a school wants to add a team, it must apply to the PSAL for funds to pay for coaching staff and officials for league games, which makes up the bulk of the cost of having a team. The PSAL approves or denies the school’s request based on several factors, including availability of regulation facilities, level of student interest, and whether the school has qualified coaches. Its approval is also contingent on the league having additional funds, which it often does not.

Garcia-Rosen said that after PSAL denied International Community funding for cricket and baseball teams, citing insufficient funds, his principal agreed to use the school’s budget to underwrite a boy’s soccer team for the fall. Toward the end of the season, a principal at a nearby high school, who had also paid for a soccer team out of the school budget, set up a tournament with the two teams.

“My kids won a trophy and they acted like they won the world,” Garcia-Rosen said. “Their whole demeanor, the way they carried themselves really changed.”

At that point he decided to create a league of his own.

Garcia-Rosen has grown the Small Schools Athletic League to 37 high schools that compete in baseball, soccer, and volleyball. To date, almost 2,000 student-athletes have competed in more than 500 games, he said.

But the SSAL is completely funded by principals from school budgets, and that’s not sustainable, Garcia-Rosen said.

“We want this league to show the demand, ability, and need for athletics in small schools,” he said. “That’s why we took the next step to reach out to the PSAL … Our hope was they were going to see what we’ve done and work with us, but that didn’t go quite as planned.”

Instead, after Garcia-Rosen approached top PSAL officials a year ago to propose a collaboration, they asked him to prove the need for a small schools league, he said. That’s when Garcia-Rosen began digging deeper into data posted on the education department and PSAL websites and noticed trends that he characterized as alarming.

Schools that have very few teams have much poorer students than schools with dozens of teams, he found, and schools in the Bronx and Manhattan tend to have far fewer teams than schools in Queens and Staten Island. Schools with more white students have more thriving athletic programs, too. (The findings reflect the fact that the shift to small schools has been most concentrated in areas with many poor students of color, a trend that advocates have decried.) Large swaths of students attend schools where, at some point in the year, there are no teams for either boys or girls, or both.

Garcia-Rosen presented his findings in April to top PSAL and education department officials, but they did not make any immediate changes.

Since then he has thrown himself deeper into his crusade. He produced the 17-page report, which is flush with charts. He sent a public information request to the city for a list of all schools that have requested PSAL teams over the past 10 years and details about whether and why the schools’ requests were granted or denied. And he started circulating an online petition that asks for more funding for the SSAL, which so far has 229 signatures.

“I truly believe that when [Chancellor] Dennis Walcott and his leadership team look at this report and the statistics … they will work with us to come up with the best solution for student athletes,” Garcia-Rosen said.

But the Department of Education is not convinced that small schools need any special attention when it comes to competitive sports. “Most of the teams in the PSAL are small schools and the majority of the schools in the Small Schools Athletic League already have PSAL teams,” said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman.

Still, Garcia-Rosen said, there are some schools with no PSAL sports at all, and others with very few. He is proposing an overhaul to the city’s funding formula so that every school would have at least six interscholastic teams, and larger schools would have more — he suggests an additional team for every 100 students, up to a cap of 20 teams. If schools want more than 20 teams, they would have to fund the costs out of their own budgets. For all of the teams, each school could decide whether to participate in the PSAL, the SSAL, or some other private league that meets their sports needs.

“It’s all about thinking outside the box, thinking creatively. That’s what this league is all about,” he said. “I think the resources are there. It’s just a matter of being efficient and… not doing things the way they’ve been done for 50 years.”

The largest city schools currently field more than 40 teams, and asking them to fund half of their athletic programs would represent a major expense. But Garcia-Rosen said he hopes large schools would understand the need for fairness in giving all students the opportunity to compete in interscholastic sports.

“I think there are solutions on the table [so] that schools wouldn’t have to lose their teams,” he said.

The advantage of a school joining the SSAL is that it is uniquely designed to fit small schools’ needs, which include schools with large English Language Learner populations and transfer schools, Garcia-Rosen said. Many of these schools have students who are 19 years old or older, which means that they are not eligible to play in the PSAL. Plus, when small schools field PSAL teams, they must compete against teams that pull from a much larger student population, which can result in disheartening skill disparities.

Garcia-Rosen’s report also points to research finding that students who participate in sports are more likely to succeed in school.

Teacher and baseball coach Dominick Passafiume from Metropolitan High School in the Bronx said he has seen those benefits firsthand. Currently, the PSAL funds three teams at Metropolitan, but after joining the SSAL, more than double the number of students can now participate in school sports, he said.

“I had a group of guys who really wanted to be a part of it, and in order to be a part of it, I held them to a high standard academically,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of change, a lot of positive attitude toward the school … and school pride.”

Passafiume’s baseball team won the SSAL championship last year, but he said he recognizes that when the school’s budget starts to get tight, funding for the team might get cut.

Assistant Principal Wallace Simpson of Essex Street Academy said the campus he’s on, Seward Park, has nine PSAL teams. But there are five schools in the building, with about 2,000 students total. As the varsity basketball coach, Simpson said he can only take three to five students from each school, which means a very small percentage of students at each school gets to participate in organized athletics. So Essex Academy, which has no PSAL teams of its own, created a soccer team with SSAL. The campus also runs its own intramural basketball program in the spring where 10 teams can compete against each other.

“PSAL can’t really serve the needs of all the kids that would like to participate,” he said.

Garcia-Rosen’s full report is below:

The Inequitable Distribution of Sports Funding by the PSAL Public Copy

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