Members of Noble Street's Rowe-Clark Campus rugby team practice inside their gym in March. Noble founder Michael Milkie says students often asked him about playing on sports teams. Now he makes sure each campus has about $65,000 to spend on sports. Credit: Photo by Grace Donnelly

It is 6 a.m. and still dark on a March morning, at a small park near the corner of Chicago and Kedzie, a busy intersection of strip malls. A group of boys from Noble Street Charter’s Rowe-Clark campus, about a half-mile away, are gathered here.

“You have 10 seconds to find a partner,” says Ryan McBride in his clipped Irish accent. Some 30 boys rearrange themselves, with one lying on top of the other. They wait for McBride to blow the whistle for the drill, which looks like something that would take place during a wrestling match.

“The ground is freezing,” they holler into the wind.

In an odd twist, rugby, the national sport of Ireland, has become one of the most popular sports among Noble Street campuses. All of the 16 campuses have boys’ teams and most have girls’ teams as well.

When he opened the first Noble Street campus with his wife in 1999, former teacher Michael Milkie admits he wasn’t thinking too much about sports. But through the years, students would often ask about playing on teams. “We realized it was important to them,” he says.

Milkie supported the idea when one of his principals brought in rugby, and now makes sure each school spends about $65,000 on sports. That pays for coach stipends, transportation, uniforms and other equipment. The teams also sometimes fundraise.

Noble Street is the exception among charters in its commitment to a sport. Many charter schools are housed in buildings that don’t have space for teams to practice and play. In fact, Noble Street-Johnson College Prep in Englewood is located in an old elementary school building. One day this spring, the girls’ soccer, track and field and softball teams shared the small lawn behind the school with the boys’ baseball team. Meanwhile, the boys’ track team ran sprints around the block.

“Facilities is one of our biggest limitations, but we make do,” says Jon Watson, the athletic director at Johnson College Prep.

All Noble Street campuses have a rugby team. The unusual sport came to the network via a principal and has taken off because it is inexpensive and the students love the chance to learn something new.
All Noble Street campuses have a rugby team. The unusual sport came to the network via a principal and has taken off because it is inexpensive and the students love the chance to learn something new.

An analysis of sports teams that play in Chicago’s Public League shows that on average, charter high schools have fewer than five teams. Because the initial focus is usually on academics or school climate, sports programs typically are not developed until the charter is more established.

A sport like rugby, however, is not played as part of the Public League. Instead, the Noble Street teams compete against each other and some suburban teams. What Noble Street’s experience shows is how students will latch onto a sport, even one that is foreign to them.

Though many colleges don’t yet have rugby as a varsity sport, it is growing and scholarships are out there. Rugby is also inexpensive, as there are no pads or other equipment as in football.

McBride notes that rugby also fills a gap for the boys and girls during seasons when they don’t have any other major sport going on. When students are playing sports, their grades improve and they behave better, he says.

“It is a great way for social control,” McBride says.

It also provides an outlet for students who might need it. Shabree Evans, now a senior, is the manager of the boys’ team and is at the field on this March morning. She has played for the girls’ team since she was a sophomore.

“At first, I was scared,” she says. Her mother was also, when Shabree explained that rugby is like football, but played without a helmet and pads.

But after the first practice, Shabree says she was hooked. “You get a lot of support from your teammates, so that can relieve a lot of stress. And tackling, that can relieve a lot of stress too,” she says, giggling. “It is a fun sport.”

Shabree also was impressed and surprised that her team won every game. The girls’ Rowe-Clark rugby team is somewhat legend and almost every season wins all their games. “I did not know that our team was that good,” she says.

Shabree’s older brother dropped out of Orr High School. But she says one thing that might have kept him interested is more sports programs or other activities.

For her, it made a big difference. As Shabree gets ready to leave high school, she says the two things she will miss most are rugby and drumline. The two adults she is most attached to are McBride and her drumline teacher.

“They are different from a regular teacher, because they know us outside of the classroom,” she says. “They know how to handle us if we are feeling a certain way. A regular teacher only sees us academic-wise, and how we act in the classroom.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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