Eighth-grader Charles Williams didn't know much about the sport of lacrosse before this year -- and what he knew turned him off.
"I thought it would be boring," says Charles, who attends Lombard Middle School, an inner-city school in East Baltimore.
But this year, he and other Lombard students were recruited into the seven-team Baltimore City Middle School Lacrosse League, a privately funded experiment aimed at boosting student attendance and academic performance.
"It inspired people to come," Charles says of the program. "They would get a chance to learn a different sport."
That enthusiasm is likely to extend far beyond middle school, says fellow eighth-grader and teammate Anthony Parker.
"When you play lacrosse, you've got something to think about. You could get a scholarship to go to college," Anthony says. "It's to get you off the street and stay out of trouble."
Their response is exactly what the Lacrosse Foundation was hoping to get when it launched the lacrosse league in spring 1989 with a $134,000 grant from the Abell Foundation. "The gist of the program was to use lacrosse as a motivational tool to improve attendance, behavior and academic achievement," says Steven B. Stenersen, executive director of the Lacrosse Foundation.
A study by researchers at the University of Maryland Baltimore County indicates dramatic success in those areas for the students who participate, according to the Abell Foundation.
The researchers found that students in the league had attendance rates of 91 percent during the 1991-1992 school year, compared with 82.4 percent for students who did not play lacrosse.
The lacrosse players posted a promotion rate of 94.2 percent, compared with 78.1 percent for the other students studied, and had grades 3.9 percent higher than their peers.
"When the kids get a taste of it in the first year, and are geared up for it the second year, that's when they really start to get motivated," says Mr. Stenersen.
The lacrosse program grew out of an experiment in the mid-1980s at Harlem Park Middle School in West Baltimore that was organized by volunteers from Westinghouse, the school's corporate partner, who are lacrosse fans.
"Lacrosse was a very new and different activity for these kids," recalls Mr. Stenersen. "These kids had never seen it, had never held a stick."
Even so, the volunteers thought students would be enthusiastic about lacrosse, a sport with American Indian roots. Lacrosse is played on a field by two teams of 10 players each. The players try to maneuver a ball into the opponent's goal by using a long-handled stick with a webbed pouch.
The Harlem Park program worked out so well that in 1988, the Lacrosse Foundation applied for the Abell Foundation grant to expand the program, focusing mainly on schools in low-income areas.
Eventually, the program led to creation of an informal league that now includes Harlem Park, Lombard, Calverton, Pimlico, Greenspring, Winston and Roland Park middle schools. The teams play a winter and spring schedule among themselves, and exhibition games with local private schools.
Though foundation money is paying for the program, it requires a significant commitment from the students and school staffers as well.
Each team has up to 35 players, a head coach who has experience in lacrosse, and a coach on the staff of each school.
Players are selected through tryouts open to girls and boys. But in order to remain on the team, players must maintain certain minimum standards.
Those standards include 90 percent attendance, monitored weekly; passing grades in all subjects, and no more than one removal from school for disciplinary reasons.
What is the attraction for a sport little-known among inner-city students?
"It's different," says Mr. Stenersen. "Because it's different, it makes them feel special. They're not one of thousands of kids who are shooting hoops, they're not one of thousands of kids who are playing catch, or football."
The program has gone so well, in fact, that the Lacrosse Foundation is seeking money to expand the league to another five schools, perhaps as early as this spring. And the program has spawned similar programs in Hartford, Conn., and Wilmington, N.C., says Mr. Stenersen.
At Lombard, meanwhile, students and staff members see benefits from the lacrosse program even during the off-season. "It has really enhanced the students' self-esteem," says Veronica Blackwell, a counselor at Lombard. "They feel very good about themselves, based on their achievements."
The program also helps forge links between staff members and students who often are starved for strong male role models, said Joseph L. Fowlkes 2nd, head coach. "There's a lot of negative things in the black community," he says. The lacrosse program shows that "there is something other than this negativity."