Courtesy of Sam Rubin

When New Haven public school students walk into Squash Haven on Lake Place, they know they’ll be able to receive homework help, academic enrichment and a squash practice.

Squash Haven is a program under the Squash and Education Alliance, a network committed to providing middle school and high school students with squash mentorship and academic support. Squash Haven supports 24 public schools in New Haven.

“Squash Haven is a youth development program that supports young people to thrive through a comprehensive program model that includes academics, squash, community service, college prep and career readiness,” said Julie Greenwood, the executive director. “The longitudinal program currently works with a team of 140 students from fifth grade through college.”

The program’s academic portion is multitiered and caters to students depending on their grade level. Middle school students split their time with the program in the classroom and on the courts. High school students will be introduced to Squash Haven’s College Access and Persistence initiative, which provides college application support, test preparation and college visits. This support does not falter after graduation. College students receive remote support and check-ins regarding classes, financial aid and graduate school application advice.

Ninety-six percent of the students are first-generation students. All are racial minorities. The majority are on free or reduced lunch, and about half of the students speak English at home. The program helps many of these students apply and get into college. Academic success is integral to the program seeing as students come a minimum of three times a week and can come up to five times if they receive a C on their report card. The academic average of the students is around 90 percent with many students attending top 100 universities. Many of the matriculating students will play on — or even captain — their college varsity squash teams.

While there are many groups that pair academic enrichment with physical activity, there are particular things about squash that work well with the program’s model.

“We emphasize going to college with our students, and simply by playing this sport, they gain exposure to a lot of elite institutions and high level student-athletes” said Greenwood. “This weekend, the kids were playing at Yale and at Choate. Our kids train every day near the Yale teams, and they see what it takes to be a high-level college athlete. It’s a sport that some of our team members will have the opportunity to play in college and right now, over a third of our college kids are playing at the varsity college level, including three team captains.”

Squash’s individualistic nature has two main benefits for participants. The students have a better chance of being recruited to colleges based on their own improvement and success even if they are not a member of a private team. Additionally, the accountability associated with an individual sport like squash further encourages students to be present at practice and make the most of their time with the program.

In addition to the access to college that squash provides, the game itself is helpful for teaching developmental traits and values. According to Greenwood, players must learn to referee one another, make good calls and manage their emotions in close quarters. The sport also goes a long way from the standpoint of trying to promote healthy young people.

The program started in 2007 with just Greenwood and 25 fifth graders. Each year since its induction, the program has added staff and a new class. As of 2019, the program has 108 students in fifth through 12th grade and 28 students in college. Last year was the first year Squash Haven students graduated college.

“Yale has been an incredibly supportive institution for Squash Haven — Squash Haven simply would not exist if it weren’t for Yale support,” long-term volunteer Matthew Coffin ’19 said. “Access to squash courts is a really big barrier to accessibility, and it’s a great thing that Yale has been able to open [Brady Squash Center] up and allow kids to run around the courts.”

Yale students play an active role in the program’s success. Members of the Yale squash team coach the students an hour a week and offer one-on-one mentorship. Additionally, many of the tutors are also Yale undergraduate students.

Squash can often be considered an inaccessible, elite sport rooted in privilege, Coffin explained to the News. Squash Haven gives students consistent access to Yale’s Brady Squash Courts, a resource not available in New Haven public schools. Students are also provided with a dedicated study space adjacent to Payne Whitney Gymnasium. The space is largely funded by donors, many of whom are affiliate with collegiate squash themselves.

Participants are enrolled in both Urban Squash League and national tournaments supported by the SEA. This past weekend, Yale hosted 16 Urban squash programs scattered across the world in the annual Urban Squash Team Nationals to play, mingle and squash against each other. Over 540 players arrived at Brady Center this weekend to play in the elementary school, middle school and high school divisions.

Of Squash Haven’s first five graduating classes, 14 students went on to play collegiate squash, three of whom served as team captains.

Lauren Cueto | lauren.cueto@yale.edu

Kelly Wei | kelly.wei@yale.edu