Coaching, inspiration are sent to sidelines


After 18 years as a physical education teacher in Baltimore, Marilyn Bevans blew the whistle. She took herself out of the game.

Bevans says her side was losing anyway. "Physical education in city schools is going down the tubes," she says. "Every year, girls' fitness gets worse and worse."

Bevans now teaches in Baltimore County. But she remains a steadfast critic of what she calls lackluster efforts by the city school system to interest girls in athletics.

"No wonder girls come to high school with a poor attitude toward sports," she says. "What would you expect if you had one physical education teacher in middle school, and he was a male? Girls that age are going through so many changes. How long are they going to want to play flag football?"

In interviews with 40 coaches, athletic directors and other educators in city public high schools, The Evening Sun heard two recurring themes:

* The girls' sports program suffers because of a shortage of female physical education teachers to prepare girls for athletics and to encourage them to go out for teams.

* Physical education has been de-emphasized from elementary school on, and many students never master basic skills. Boys tend to pick up these skills on their own, but many girls do not.

"In most cases, physical education in Baltimore City has deteriorated into almost no instruction," says Evelyn Johnson, who retired in June after 17 years as athletic director at Forest Park High.

"It's like teaching girls nothing but the alphabet before high school, and then asking them to read Shakespeare," says Dave Lang, athletic director at Southwestern High.

Coaches say that many girls in city schools have the ability to excel in sports but are discouraged from trying by a lack of fundamental skills. "There are girls walking around these halls with more talent than those on our teams," says Arlene Scott, a physical education teacher at Southwestern.

One factor is a shortage of phys-ed instructors in elementary schools, where there are just 40 instructors for 122 schools. This limits students to one 40-minute gym class a week. Moreover, middle school students usually receive only nine weeks of physical education over a three-year period.

In high school, a girl's athletic participation may be limited to two semesters in gym class with a middle-aged male instructor, who cannot identify with young women the way a female instructor can. The average male phys-ed teacher in city high schools is 47 years old; the average female is 45.

Don Williams, the school system's administrator for sports programs, agrees that there are problems. "A girl may be assigned to a teacher who sits the class down, tells them what to do, gives them one turn to do it and then says, 'Get dressed.' Do you expect that girl to be excited about high school sports?" says Williams, director of interscholastic athletics and curriculum specialist for physical education.

Girls need encouragement, particularly from women phys-ed instructors, to try out for teams. Yet there are only 24 women teaching phys ed in the city's 16 high schools. Most schools have one female instructor. Dunbar High has none. Jennifer Jones taught physical education at Dunbar last year and still coaches basketball and volleyball there, despite being transferred to Harlem Park Middle School this year.

"It's tough not being at Dunbar during the day," says Jones. "I can't pick out the kids in the hall or lunchroom who have problems and may need to get involved in sports. Once involved, they develop an interest in athletics, and the little petty things they'd been worrying about don't matter anymore. Plus, now they have a reason to stay in school."

There was no shortage of female instructors until the advent of Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, which outlawed sex discrimination in school athletic programs. Title IX dragged women's sports into the 20th century, promising fair play for the girls and fair pay for their coaches.

However, Title IX also created coed physical education classes and allowed men to teach them. These changes have undermined the girls' athletic program in Baltimore, some insiders say. When high school enrollment declined, most of the physical-education staff cuts were women, who lacked seniority in their department and were no longer deemed essential.

Thus, girls find themselves thrust into gym class alongside boys, and in programs taught by men. Intimidated, many girls melt into the walls and just watch the boys play. "Girls will hide in the corner. They'll do anything to get out of playing. So nobody teaches the girls," says Eva Scott, athletic director at Western High.

"Coed classes are embarrassing and not fair to the students," says Irv Locust, a phys-ed teacher at Dunbar High. "By the second week, the girls can't keep up. They don't have the same physical skills or stamina as boys."

Some schools have begun to segregate the sexes. Patterson High had positive results last year when it drowned its coed swim program and began teaching boys and girls separately. A weight-training class, for girls only, worked at Walbrook High. "The girls could see some successes, and they didn't feel self-conscious," says Harrietta Wallace, Walbrook's athletic director.

As their numbers diminish in the city school system, female phys-ed teachers fear that fewer young women will develop a bond with a coach or acquire, through athletics, the self-esteem needed to cope with teen angst.

Last year, one school's track squad included a girl whose mother was a drug addict; a girl who lived with her sister, another drug addict; and a girl who was being sexually abused at home. All were outstanding runners who completed the season. At another school, a girl who is undergoing treatment for emotional problems has found support in athletics. "Without sports, I don't think this girl would be able to control herself," says the coach. "She has mellowed; she no longer wants to fight. If she has personal problems, she brings them to the P.E. office."

Says the coach, "We can really save a lot of kids, if the [city schools] would give us a chance."

Girls desperately need self-respect and strong ties with a coach, or physical education teacher, says Barbara "Breezy" Bishop, basketball coach at Western High. "A girl starts looking at boys when she's 13. When those hormones start talking, she thinks she should no longer play sports, but sit in the stands and watch him," says Bishop. "Unless you have close ties with that girl, you're going to lose her to the guy. Then she winds up experiencing things she can't handle."

The same role-model problem that applies to physical education applies to coaching positions, since 38 percent of the girls' teams in the city are coached by men. No matter how dedicated and competent the men are, something is missing, experts say. "It's difficult for men to coach women," says Mabel Wilson, athletic director at Lake Clifton High. "Men have to change their personalities to coach girls' sports, and a lot of them can't do that. But if you don't have men coaching girls' teams, then you don't have that sport, and if you don't have that sport, then your athletic budget is cut. It's a Catch-22."

During the 1989-90 school year, seven of the 10 girls' teams at Polytechnic Institute were coached by men. Even Western High, which has five female physical education teachers, had two male coaches. And a man coached the modern dance team at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical.

Increasingly, high schools have begun to recruit their coaches from other city schools. Last year, the city decided that its coaches need not be employed by the school system. Absentee coaches are in; they are no longer around during the day to help solve players' problems, or drum up interest in a sport.

"A lot of girls' teams have failed here because there is no one to actively recruit them during the day," says Forest Park's Johnson. "Most of our students don't take sports. They take people. They really get into the coach because they admire the person. Our students lack so much attention that if you give them some, you've got them for life."

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