The Tilden Blue Devils handily won their late March game against DuSable. Coach Alberto Simental wants his players to have a good experience because baseball was important to him growing up. Credit: Photo by Grace Donnelly

The small group of teenaged boys, dressed in royal blue sweatshirts and matching baseball caps, walk past a barbed wire-lined intermodal on 47th Street that is crammed with loud trucks belching clouds of diesel exhaust. They head under a crumbling viaduct, where crevices are stuffed with glass from broken bottles, empty chip bags and other trash.

The boys turn down a side street and finally reach Fuller Park, about six blocks from Tilden High. Today’s game, Tilden vs. DuSable, will be played here.

Tom Maher Jr., a husky boy with a blond buzz cut, quickly presses his teammates to warm up. Nine boys take their places along a spray-painted white line and respond in unison as Tom counts down stretches: first the calves, then quads and ending with arms.

Today’s game is an intimate affair. Combined, the teams don’t add up to more than 20 players, barely enough to field the two teams. Each of the two coaches has an assistant coach. The spectators can be counted on one hand: Two Tilden girls follow a freshman named Adrian to the field and sit on the bench for the first few minutes, while Tom’s dad is the lone parent.

Baseball and football are everything to Tom Jr., and that is why Tom Maher Sr. rearranges his schedule as an air conditioner/heating repairman to come to the games.

Maher Sr. initially enrolled his son at Leo High School, a Catholic school with a strong, well-funded sports program. But when the financial weight became too heavy for his budget, he transferred his son to Tilden. “I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” Maher Sr. says.

Tom Maher Sr. tries his best to show up at most of his son's baseball games. He is one of the few parents involved in sports at Tilden. His son, Tom Jr., was at Leo High, a Catholic school with a strong sports program, until tuition became too much for his budget.
Tom Maher Sr. tries his best to show up at most of his son’s baseball games. He is one of the few parents involved in sports at Tilden. His son, Tom Jr., was at Leo High, a Catholic school with a strong sports program, until tuition became too much for his budget.

In general, the move has been good. Tilden, a struggling school in Back of the Yards, was awarded a big federal school improvement grant and has money to incorporate cutting-edge technology into the curriculum. Tom Jr., now a junior, is personable and has plenty of friends. What’s more, the school is only about a block away from his house, so he doesn’t have to travel the rough South Side streets as he did when he was at Leo, at 79th Street and Sangamon Street.

Yet some of Tilden’s sports programs have been a disappointment. This fall, the football team was forced to disband midway through the season. The long-time coach left at the end of last school year, and Principal Maurice Swinney says that he got his budget so late that he barely had time to figure out what to do about the football coaching position. Some schools begin practicing and bonding as a team in August. But Tilden’s new coach was not able to pull together practices until almost the start of school, and had virtually no time to connect with the players.

Tilden has fewer than 400 students, so there weren’t many young men available to recruit. The players who did show up for the football team had trouble playing both offense and defense. The team did poorly, losing every game. Eventually, the adults made the call to quit for the year.

“He took that really hard,” Maher Sr. says of his son.

Maher Sr. says he and Juan Ruiz, the only other involved dad and the team’s third-base coach, are trying to make sure the baseball team is strong. The young coach, Alberto Simental, is committed and convinced Swinney to spend $1,000 on an indoor batting cage.

Simental, who played baseball for Juarez High, says the baseball field was the one place he could “breathe” while growing up. Young and idealistic, Simental wants to provide that for his gaggle of Tilden boys.

But the team is lacking so many of the basics. “Balls, bats,” Maher Sr. says, ticking off a list. “I brought in two old pairs of cleats for students who needed them.”

A few years ago, Ruiz had a job installing state-of-the-art baseball cages and working on athletic fields in the suburbs. His heart aches when he remembers how the shiny new facilities compared to the meager resources for the students at Tilden.

Tilden’s building, which stretches an entire city block, is surrounded by concrete dotted with small patches of grass. The only practice field option for all the outdoor sports teams is Fuller Park, a 100-year-old facility with an aging gray field house. In front is a lawn with the baseball diamond. “This is just a dirt field,” says Ruiz.

Maher Sr. and Ruiz have gotten the message that it is up to them to raise money if they want something better. They are considering candy sales, car washes and even just sending their boys to stand on the street with tin cans, asking for coins. “It is sad,” Maher Sr. says.

Like so much else in CPS high schools, sports programs are like a tale of two cities: Schools with larger enrollment — which means more funding — and more well-to-do parents or donors offer more opportunities, while other schools just limp along. To some degree, basketball is the exception: CPS has a long tradition of having competitive basketball teams even in low-income neighborhoods, and the sport is inexpensive — all participants really need is a ball, some shoes and a hoop.

Yet sports can play a vital role in engaging students in school and helping them to succeed.

Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor of education, says that sports, like art and other extracurricular programs, have come to be seen as “extras” rather than integral to a healthy, vibrant school. Yet he notes studies have unequivocally shown that these things are critical.

“These are not just frills,” said Noguera during a recent visit to Chicago to give a speech for Generation All, an initiative aimed at revitalizing neighborhood high schools. “Sports and arts lead to better learning. It is not the kids in the suburbs and the private schools [who pay the price] — it is poor kids that are being shortchanged.”

The impact of sports programs also reverberates beyond the students, helping to build a relationship with the surrounding community and solidifying its support of the school. “Look at ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ” Noguera says, referring to the movie and TV series on high school football in small-town Texas. “The whole community comes out.”

Few Places to Play GraphicA Catalyst Chicago analysis shows that in general, lower-income students have far less access to a variety of sports programs at their schools. High schools with fewer than 85 percent low-income students have an average of 24 sports programs, while schools with more than 85 percent poor students have half as many.

Take Curie High School. It is the third-largest high school in the city, with more than 3,000 students. More than 95 percent of its students are considered low-income. Yet Curie offers only 25 sports programs. Seventeen smaller high schools have more.

Nellie Cotton, whose daughter attends Curie, notes the financial obstacles. Students have to pay for their own uniforms, as well as fees to participate, so many don’t join teams because of the cost, she explains.

Curie parents planned a $20 fundraiser to pay for improvements to an athletic field on campus, so that football and soccer practice and games could be held there and students wouldn’t have to take a bus to another field.

But so few people RSVP’d for the breakfast that it had to be cancelled. The group recently had a $2 fundraiser but even then had to give away tickets and hoped it could make money through food sales.

“We didn’t want our kids to have to travel,” Cotton says. “We wanted fans to be able to show up so the kids could have pride in their school.”

CPS data show that only about a third of high schools have baseball diamonds on campus; while half of high schools have football/soccer fields, some of them are not big enough to host games. The district has seven stadiums that are used by all schools.

Barely any high schools have sports programs that can compete with those in suburban school districts that not only have bigger budgets, but also booster clubs with a tradition of raising additional money for extras.

Maurice Swinney was shocked when he took over as Tilden’s principal three years ago. He came from a school in Louisiana that had a robust athletic program, complete with fields, gyms and all the equipment that students needed or could want. The schools in that district also had booster clubs that purchased extras.

“It was just so huge,” Swinney says. “When I came to Tilden I thought, ‘Oh my God…’ I already had a [picture] of what an athletic program can and should look like. And then to not have it… I had to take that in for a moment and then figure out, ‘How do we build it up as best we can?’ ”

In CPS, the central office pays for only two things: Coaches’ stipends and referees. Up until five years ago, the district also paid all assistant coaches’ stipends; now it pays stipends for assistants for only seven sports, including football, basketball and track and field. The district also quit providing a sports stipend of $750 per school — a pittance, but still something.

Athletic Facilities GraphicPrincipals point out that the stipends still leave them at a disadvantage. Coach stipends are negotiated in the teachers’ union contract, and football coaches, who are the highest paid, make about $6,000. Coaches for golf, tennis and cross-country only earn about $1,000.

Yet in many suburban high schools, coaches can earn double what they make in Chicago.

Ron McGraw, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, which promotes interscholastic sports, says that there is such a wide variety in how schools deal with sports funding, it is impossible to get a full picture of what is going on. “It is a local decision,” he says.

But beyond coach stipends, what really hinders schools is that CPS does not provide any other sports funding — not for buses to games, not for uniforms, not for equipment, not for tournaments.

Principals then have one of three choices. They can limit the number of sports offered, which schools often do.

They can use discretionary money, forcing sports to compete with extra teachers, supplies, office clerks, attendance officers and counselors for funding. An analysis of discretionary spending shows that in 2014, schools spent anywhere from 0 to 13 percent on “other after-school activities,” which include sports and clubs.

Or, as another option, principals can look to parent groups or students to raise money. But student fundraisers were dealt a blow when the district imposed new rules limiting the number and location of candy and chip sales. In 2012, CPS passed a policy that banned the sale of unhealthy snacks during the school day. Candy and chips can still be sold during games, but except for some basketball games, few people show up, so it often isn’t worth the effort.

At Hyde Park High School, Principal Antonio Ross says he instructed each team’s coach to come up with a fundraising idea. But now that they can’t sell snacks, none of the coaches have been able to come up with solid options.

Tony Howard, CPS’ executive director of education and sports policy, says the administration does not help schools figure out how to offer robust sports programs. “We don’t get into it,” he says.

However, this year, sports administration put out a Request for Proposals for corporate sponsorships. While some teams get donations of shoes and other apparel from Nike, no team is currently sponsored outright. The RFP asked for proposals to sponsor individual teams as well as sports throughout the district; the administration decided to pursue sponsorships through the central office to make sure they are doled out equitably.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman says the district got eight proposals, but has not decided which ones to pursue.

Sports programs have never been adequately funded, says famed Marshall High School girls’ basketball coach Dorothy Gaters, who is also the school’s athletic director. But in recent years, sports programs have been hit harder, becoming collateral damage from the district’s pursuit of school choice as well as the overall loss of students.

Tilden Blue Devil Fernando Sandoval runs home and scores. This year, Tilden won all but two games, but the boys lack basic equipment. One parent brought in two pairs of old cleats for students who needed them.
Tilden Blue Devil Fernando Sandoval runs home and scores. This year, Tilden won all but two games, but the boys lack basic equipment. One parent brought in two pairs of old cleats for students who needed them.

As more new schools open, neighborhood high schools decline; half now enroll fewer than 600 students. Once known and celebrated for their athletic talents, schools like Tilden and Marshall have dwindled into shells of what they once were. In decades past, Tilden won state championships in wrestling and track and field, and had strong baseball and basketball teams. A decade ago, Tilden had more than 1,300 students; at last count, it had 318 students.

Marshall is also now a third of the size it was years ago. When Gaters was a student in the 1980s, Marshall had just won city or state titles in boys’ basketball and football. It had competitive track and swim teams. The band also was strong.

“We had a lot of kids. We offered a lot,” Gaters says. “It had a great impact on the community. Everyone in the community was so proud of the achievements.”

“The charter schools have siphoned off not just our students but our athletes,” Gaters adds. “When you were once looking at 1,000 kids or 1,500 kids, and now you are down to 400, it is going to impact your sports program.”

Today, only 11 percent of the students in Marshall’s attendance area go to the school, according to CPS data. Marshall’s girls’ and boys’ basketball teams are still competitive, but few of the other sports teams are.

When sports teams could sell candy and chips during the school day and at games, it might take them a month to raise the $1,200 or so they would need to go to a tournament in a nearby state like Wisconsin or Iowa, Gaters says. By contrast, it took the girls’ basketball team five months to raise enough cash to go to Las Vegas for a tournament last year and much of the money came from a former student who made a donation.

Howard says he sympathizes with the principals and coaches, but that the district is also worried about the growing epidemic of childhood and teenage obesity.

Gaters stresses that going to out-of-state tournaments is a good idea not only because it gets the girls seen by college coaches in other places, but because it is an experience they might not otherwise have. “The kids just had a great time. It was an opportunity for them to experience something entirely new and different. So we are not able to do those types of things on a regular basis,” she says.

Despite Gaters’ substantial success with her teams, she knows she is still at a disadvantage.

Tilden Blue Devils (from left) Lenord Davis, Christian Ruiz and Shanon Quantez walk from Tilden to their home field, Fuller Park, about six blocks away. Only a third of CPS baseball teams have a diamond on campus.
Tilden Blue Devils (from left) Lenord Davis, Christian Ruiz and Shanon Quantez walk from Tilden to their home field, Fuller Park, about six blocks away. Only a third of CPS baseball teams have a diamond on campus.

The selective high schools on the North Side and in the central part of the city not only shine academically: They are among the only schools with a variety of financially viable sports programs. Simeon Academy, where basketball superstar Derrick Rose and budding star Jabari Parker played, is the lone traditional high school on the South Side with a booster club.

Whitney Young, North Side College Prep, Walter Payton and Jones all have 30-plus sports teams, even though North Side and Payton are relatively small schools.

Part of these schools’ advantage is strong parent involvement, including active fundraising, and families with money. The schools also charge hefty activity fees. One example of the result: The football team at Whitney Young had a budget of $12,000 in the 2013-2014 school year (not including the coaches’ stipend paid by CPS), while  teams like Marshall and Manley–only a about a mile West of Whitney Young–often only have about $2,000.

Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner has perhaps the most developed sports program in the city, including tennis, lacrosse and water polo. No other school offers any sport that isn’t also offered at Whitney Young, with the exception of perhaps rugby. Whitney Young also has two competition-size gyms, a regulation-size athletic field and tennis courts.

It is one of only two schools that have booster clubs that raise significant money. According to tax documents, the boys’ basketball booster club regularly brings in more than $100,000. In 2013, it had an unusually successful year, raising more than a quarter of a million dollars. Lane Tech’s Baseball Boosters brought in $52,000.

When Kenner took over as principal at Whitney Young in the mid-1990s, the school had sports programs, but Kenner felt they weren’t connecting with students. Kenner had been a physical education teacher, and her entire family was deeply involved in sports.

Kenner considers it “stupid” for principals to put sports and other extracurricular programs on the back burner. She makes it a point to go to as many games and other events, from math competitions to lacrosse matches, as she can manage when her students are participating. It shows students that she and the school care about them, she says.

If teams need something, Kenner is usually able to provide it. The key: Parents who are financially able and willing to step in.

Kenner points to a time when her son played baseball and basketball for Whitney Young. Both the teams traveled, and the parents who could afford it not only paid the way for their sons, but also chipped in to cover the cost for those whose families could not pay.

On top of that, if a coach comes to Kenner and says they need a bus to get a team somewhere or fans to a game, she finds money for it. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending out an e-mail or letter to parents with the ‘ask.’

“I can’t remember a time that I really said no to anybody,” she says.

Kenner notes that Whitney Young has been able to attract the children of wealthy Chicagoans, including basketball icon Michael Jordan’s youngest son, Marcus.

Kenner notes that for top-flight athletes, selling the school is easy. “Why wouldn’t you want to come to a school that is focused on academics and has successful athletic programs? I mean the answer to that to me is very simple.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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