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Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership

Harlem Lacrosse & Leadership (HLL) is a youth service organization that uses lacrosse to engage at-risk youth from Harlem and the Bronx. HLL operates lacrosse, tutoring, mentoring and academic advising programming at Frederick Douglass Academy (“FDA”) and P.S. 149 – The Sojourner Truth School (“P.S. 149”). HLL provides a safe, structured environment for boys and girls to compete, learn, and develop into leaders for their community. Both sites have practice three times per week and mandatory daily study halls, during which students work on school assignments with academic mentors. They offer services to students of all academic levels, but they actively recruit special education and behaviorally challenged students who are most at risk for future academic decline and dropout. HLL’s academic mentoring services have led to a 6-point increase in core-class GPA for mainstream students and a 9.5-point increase in core-class GPA for special education students. Since 2011, the graduation rate for HLL’s FDA students has been 100%, well above the school’s average. Through free boarding school admission counseling, eleven HLL students have earned over $4.5 million in scholarship offers to elite secondary and junior boarding schools. Those boys now attend nine different schools. HLL’s school-based approach allows them to maintain direct, daily involvement in students’ lives for the entirety of the school year; it also allows them to reach students whose parents/guardians may not be able to regularly transport their children to activities that occur off of school grounds. HLL recently helped to install a competitive middle school girls lacrosse program at FDA.

Lacrosse has historically been reserved for upper class, suburban communities. Children in low-income areas and the inner city lack exposure to lacrosse due to cultural barriers, a lack of playing fields, and the cost of equipment. The result has been that children who can benefit from the unique advantages of this game lose out. A young lacrosse player’s hero is not a “pro” who skipped college, but a collegiate student-athlete. Perhaps more important, the nation’s top secondary schools and universities actively seek talented lacrosse players from disadvantaged communities.

Lacrosse offers students the discipline, work ethic and leadership skills necessary to gain admission to and succeed at top academic institutions. HLL utilizes the team concept as a means of inspiring institutional pride and cohesion among students. For those boys and girls who have demonstrated unruly behavior in the classroom, lacrosse has helped to instill discipline and respect. The presence of a full-time lacrosse coach, academic tutor, and mentor reinforces the notion that lessons learned in lacrosse are applicable throughout the school day.

In 2008, HLL Founder Simon Cataldo joined the faculty of FDA as a special education math teacher with Teach for America. FDA is a public school serving predominantly low-income students from Harlem and the Bronx. 80% of the student body is African-American, and the majority of the remainder is of Hispanic origin. Simon recruited his most academically and behaviorally challenged students onto the first team sport offered to the more than 600 middle school students at FDA. Simon’s students achieved the highest gains on the NY State Math Exam in the school district that year, as well as the highest scores for special education students in FDA’s history. Simon credited the transformation of those students into classroom leaders and higher achieving students to lacrosse. Simon continued to teach at FDA and coach the lacrosse team.

By Spring 2010, Simon had three assistant coaches and the ardent support of the school’s administration and faculty. The team ballooned to 26 players, mostly composed of boys identified as “at-risk” of dropping out, failing, or being sent to a detention site for behavioral reasons. Despite a school-wide 8th grade graduation rate of 70%, only one of our players failed to graduate on time that June. That student went to summer school with the encouragement of his coaches. The team also boasted an average GPA well above the school average. In 2011, HLL was formed to extend the benefits of lacrosse to more students and add a formal academic mentoring component to team membership. Today over ninety middle school boys and nearly thirty middle school girls are involved in the program between its two sites, which now involves intensive, mandatory academic tutoring five days per week, high school transition and boarding school admissions counseling, and of course, year-round lacrosse. HLL has overcome the challenges posed to bringing lacrosse to the lowest-performing school district in Manhattan. In the last four years, they have been able to transform the culture of a school and the prospects for some of its most troubled students, using a combination of athletic and academic rigor in tandem.

HLL is constantly recruiting new talented coaches and volunteers from throughout the New York lacrosse community and beyond to form meaningful relationships with the children they serve. Your support for Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership will go directly towards critical funds for the continuation and development of the existing lacrosse program centered in Harlem public schools. For more information on how to help HLL and the students they serve, please visit http://www.harlemlacrosse.org. HLL Program Director Jake Klein can be reached at jake@harlemlacrosse.org or by calling (410)-236-6394.

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