Squash in the City

The regulars, alums with tufts of grey hair pulled back behind Yale insignia sweatbands and varicose veins peeking out of their tube socks, seem a little befuddled by the noise coming from the courts. Above the familiar smack of a hard, black squash ball, the squeals of 33 New Haven middle-school students in their fourth week of squash lessons ricochet off the walls.

SquashHaven, a new after-school enrichment program partnered with the Yale squash team, is responsible for this sudden infusion of inner-city youth. For three hours, three times a week, the group offers squash instruction, fitness drills, one-on-one tutoring, field trips, and community service to low-income students from New Haven’s public schools. The initiative is ambitious not only because of the intensive commitment it demands from students and parents but also because of its long-term goals for participants. If successful, the program will train a new class of 5th graders each year and offer them academic and athletic support throughout high school.

“Unlike other community outreach programs, this is comprehensive and long term,” says Dave Talbott, the head coach of the Yale men’s squash team. “It’s not like other sports teams that might just go once a week.”

On this Wednesday afternoon, a row of students sits dejectedly on a bench next to the court, rackets dangling between their legs, heads bowed.

“I just want to play,” grumbles class clown Tymel Barker, a 5th grader at Edgewood Elementary School.

Edgewood is a magnet school that attracts students from around New Haven because of its unique focus on social responsibility and arts integration. 65 percent of students in the New Haven district receive free or reduced-price lunch — a common gauge of poverty in schools — but only 45 percent of Edgewood students qualify. SquashHaven also draws from John S. Martinez School, another magnet school that has a higher proportion of low-income students than Edgewood. SquashHaven thus pulls from a group of students whose parents are engaged enough to send their children to a magnet school rather than the local public school, and it further narrows this pool through its own careful admissions process, which values evidence of dedication.

But no matter how much SquashHaven selects for commitment, kids will be kids.

“They forgot their permission slips,” Julie Greenwood, the executive director of SquashHaven, explains in a whisper, but loudly enough for Tymel and the other offenders to hear and be reminded of their oversight. After a few minutes, Greenwood caves.

“Okay guys, you can go play now,” she says. In seconds, Tymel and the other kids slap on their goggles and skip exhuberantly from the bench to the court.

Pig-tailed and trim, Greenwood is so energetic when she talks about SquashHaven’s field trips to the Yale Bowl, its pizza parties, and its academic plans, that it would be easy to mistake her for a recent college graduate 10 years her junior. But her exuberance flows from a passion for the program rather than a fountain of youth. Last spring, the board of directors for SquashHaven lured Greenwood from her post as the tennis and squash coach at Williams College to help develop their fledgling program. By holding Tymel and his teammates accountable for their lack of permission slips, Greenwood demonstrates a distinct aspect of SquashHaven’s philosophy: the goal isn’t just to develop the next wave of court superstars but to encourage responsibility in all realms of life through an intensive commitment to athletics.

“Maybe a handful of these kids can do great things with their squash,” Greenwood says, “But the goal of our program is developing work ethic.”

This model for holistic improvement was created in 1996 when Greg Zaff, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former professional squash player, started a program in Boston called SquashBusters with a budget of $65,000, a tiny court space, and 24 middle school students. In 2003, SquashBusters, having recruited hundreds of newcomers to the sport, partnered with Northeastern University to construct a squash facility in the neighborhood where a majority of the program’s participants lived. Inspired by Zaff’s success in coupling athletic and academic achievement (84% of SquashBusters graduates have gone on to attend college), educational squash initiatives are beginning to appear in cities across the country.

As a member of the Harvard men’s squash team, Tim Wyant coached some of the earliest SquashBusters participants. After graduation, Wyant played squash professionally before realizing he wanted to alter his sport’s elitist image.

“I had grown up playing squash my whole life at private clubs and in prep school,” Wyant says. “I’d look around and see only people with a certain background, a certain look.”

So when he was contacted by a businessman looking for someone to head a new after-school program in the Bronx called CitySquash, Wyant leapt at the chance. In the last three years, 45 percent of CitySquash participants have received scholarships to private high schools, totaling 1.7 million dollars in financial aid.

“It’s changing a sport that’s historically seen as limited to only a small segment of the population,” Wyant says. “In 2005, the top squash recruit at Wesleyan University came out of our sister program in Harlem.”

As of 2006, over 20 million dollars have been donated to inner-city squash programs, and that number continues to climb as groups crop up around the country. In addition to CitySquash in the Bronx and SquashHaven in New Haven, there is also SquashSmarts in Philadelphia, METROSquash in Chicago, Surf City Squash in San Diego, and StreetSquash in Harlem. In 2005, these independent clubs united under an umbrella organization called the National Urban Squash and Education Association (NUSEA), which drafted guidelines for membership requiring the programs to monitor attendance; to include squash, academic, and community service components in their curricula; and to draw students from schools with primarily low-income populations. Now, NUSEA provides both financial and logistical support to its affiliates.

In addition to establishing guidelines for and unifying various clubs, NUSEA also sponsors tournaments that allow urban squash clubs to compete against schools and teams in their area. The clubs also travel to play other urban programs, and over 200 students participate in the Urban Squash Individual Nationals and the Urban Squash Team Nationals every year, allowing them to compete on a national stage for age division titles.

Still, even as millions of dollars are being poured into building squash courts in Harlem, some doubt the long-term efficacy of the programs. Are these groups less philanthropic ventures than coalitions of wealthy racquet fanatics, desperately attempting to quell their off-court insecurities through superficial displays of charity? Many Yale students question the methods of SquashHaven and its sister programs on these grounds.

“Why are they wasting their time?” asks Bobby Allen ’09, echoing many Yale students who point to the program’s elitist overtones. “Don’t these kids have more pressing needs than learning how to play squash?”

The preface for a book entitled Raising Big Smiling Squash Kids: The Complete Roadmap for Junior Squash reads, “Squash offers your kid unparalleled benefit-opportunities to travel the world and access to top colleges…it’s a sport that can be enjoyed no matter what the weather, and a game where you don’t always need a partner for practice.” Not every sport has its ties to prestigious universities touted in how-to books.

But for Tymel Barker and his teammates, the fact that they’re playing a sport supported by Ivy League-educated investment bankers and trust-fund babies fails to faze them, though they are interested to hear that SquashHaven is the subject of an article in a Yale publication.

“We’re going to be famous!” shouts Tymel.

Dante Houghton, another 5th grade student at Edgewood, is also oblivious to the connotations squash conjures up.

“I really like doing stuff with rackets,” he says, smiling shyly.

Confronted with charges that they’re imposing an upper-crust culture on the participants, leaders of urban squash initiatives respond by spouting their successes like the gospel. With talk of helping kids “tap into the squash network” and exposing them to a “new world” of prep schools and Ivy League universities, at times their definitions of achievement smack of the very cultural elitism the movement ostensibly tries to dispel.

“If you’re trying to give kids from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to lift themselves up and set their sights high,” says CitySquash director Wyant, “what better way than to challenge them to become better athletes and better students and to introduce them to the world they’ve been excluded from their whole lives?”

Yale squash coach Talbott notes that because SquashHaven has access to Yale’s courts for workouts and to its classrooms for tutoring, the program doesn’t have to build new facilities and can direct its resources toward other pursuits. Moreover, he reasons, the members of the squash team who coach for SquashHaven benefit from the initiative just as much as the students they serve.

Bill Hatch ’09, a member of the men’s varsity squash team, agrees, saying, “They’re great kids, and they really want to learn squash. It’s a pleasure to be on the court with them.”

Indeed, the structure of SquashHaven and similar enrichment projects are in line with research showing the most effective format for youth mentoring programs. A 2002 report by David Dubois, an associate professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health and a national expert on youth mentoring programs, summarized recent research in the field by showing that mentoring has the most positive impact when it involves organized activities, encourages parental support and involvement, and occurs in the community rather than at school — all needs fulfilled by the urban squash movement.

And the success of urban squash isn’t defined only by induction into the upper crust. The SquashBusters program in Boston has collected 10 years of data on the program’s multi-faceted effects. Through the community service component of such programs, students donate 2,730 hours per year to activities from neighborhood cleanup to volunteering with the elderly. Seventy percent of sixth-grade SquashBusters participants pass their state curriculum exams, compared with fifty-one percent of their peers in Boston Public Schools. And despite a nationwide surge in childhood obesity, kids in the squash program showed a ninety percent improvement in fitness as measured by a timed mile run. One hundred percent of seniors coming out of the program graduated from high school.

“There’s no magic in squash,” says urban squash founder Zaff, who left his pioneering SquashBusters program to lead NUSEA. “Any sport can work wonders if it’s done the right way.”

In addition to measuring more traditional markers of success, SquashBusters also collects data on what it terms “character and values development.” By distributing surveys to people who come in contact with participants — including coaches of opposing teams and coordinators of community service organizations — the program measured conduct in five categories. Over ninety percent of responses said that SquashBusters players demonstrated integrity by handling defeat and victory well, showed concern for others, showed interest in volunteering, exhibited good sportsmanship, and tried hard to reach their goals.

Though her program is still in its first few weeks of operation, SquashHaven director Greenwood has ambitious plans. In the next few months, the kids will not only continue to play the game and get homework help, but also go on a field trip to a Yale chemistry lab, attend a show at the Shubert Theater, and participate in the New Haven Halloween Kids’ Fun Run.

Although SquashHaven and other squash-based programs may still possess vestiges of the elitist culture from which they sprang, perhaps this helps their cause as much as it hinders it.

“Largely because it’s such an elitist sport, these programs allow you to take kids to new environments and introduce them to people that aren’t familiar,” Zaff says. “I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily beneficial, but it’s broadening.” What makes the program special, he contends, isn’t the squash, but the group’s intensive, small, and long-term model that demands rigor on and off the court.

SquashHaven participant Tymel Barker has had to sit out of practice a few times this week because of his disruptive behavior, but in between hitting girls on the head with his racket and running ahead of the group, Tymel does seem to be settling into his new responsibilities.

“Are you running a tight ship in there, Tymel?” Greenwood calls into the men’s locker room. Tymel bounds out and gives his report: he has scanned the locker room, and all of his teammates are outside. “That’s all of them, Coach Julie!” he says.

The group then moves to the indoor track, where they’re encouraged to run for 10 minutes to prepare for a race. Above the Yale basketball teams practicing on the court, the kids skip past Yale students who smile even as their cadence is disrupted and chatter drowns out their iPods. Several boys and girls burst to the front of the pack, sprint the entire time, and hop in the elevator covered with sweat. One pair settles on a compromise — they walk one lap and run the next side-by-side. Tymel spends most of his time skipping alongside his friends and laughing with Greenwood. At the end of the run, as his other teammates collapse in feigned exhaustion, Tymel throws his hands in the air and yells, “Finito” while giggling.

Although Tymel doesn’t jog for the entire 10 minutes he’s supposed to, when Greenwood asks those who pushed themselves during the run to stand up, he rises.

“If you are standing up right now and you didn’t try your hardest, you’re hurting your team and you’re hurting yourself,” Greenwood warns sternly. Tymel sinks back down and promises her he’ll work harder next time.

During the last hour of the program, the hour devoted to homework help, Tymel scales back his class clown act as he diligently fills in a crossword puzzle and reads his book, only sporadically cracking jokes and gently elbowing his neighbors. Around him, students pull out vocabulary sheets and coloring books and tackle them with varying levels of concentration. Though they’ve only spent a few weeks in the program, if Tymel and his teammates follow in the path of SquashBusters and StreetSquash graduates, the hope is that they too will have gained not only squash skills, but also the abilities they need to succeed in college and beyond. Ultimately, it is possible that the question of whether these students’ success is due to their exposure to squash and its upper-class underpinnings will become insignificant.

Ugonna “Iggy” Igweatu ’09, a native of the Bronx, brushes aside his classmates’ reservations about imposing a white, upper-class lifestyle on inner-city minority kids in the name of academic encouragement.

“Any program that you do in the Bronx that isn’t detrimental, that’s a good thing,” says Igweatu. “Someone from my neighborhood going to any college, even community college, is a really big deal.”

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