Vital expense

The Baltimore Sun

A popular and highly successful program that provides academic assistance to football players at three city public high schools will return next year but could face an uncertain long-term future.

Funding for the Play It Smart program, which positions an academic coach onto the football staffs at Patterson, Forest Park and Edmondson, will continue for the coming year, city schools spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt said yesterday.

There had been concerns that Forest Park might drop its participation in Play It Smart, an offshoot of the Dallas-based National Football Foundation, as the school did not reapply for a grant.

However, Pyatt said paperwork for the school was likely caught in the transition between an outgoing principal at Forest Park and a new principal due to take over July 1.

Pyatt said the necessary paperwork will likely be taken care of soon.

While arrangements for next year appear to be in place, there are questions about the schools' ability to participate in the future, given the Baltimore school system's desire to give principals more autonomy in the allocation of funds and the nonprofit National Football Foundation's decision to hand more of the burden for funding the program to participating school systems.

Now in its 10th year, the Play It Smart program, by any objective measure, has been a rousing success. Originally in four schools, the program has expanded to 138 schools in 85 cities in 39 states, with the hope of adding another 20 or so schools next year.

In all, 9,000 students took part in Play It Smart this year as part of the 10-year total of 30,000 participants, according to Len Stachitas, the executive director of the program.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have emceed Baltimore's NFF chapter's scholarship banquet for the past three years.)

Stachitas said during the history of Play It Smart, 96 percent of seniors in the program nationally have graduated from high school, a significant improvement from the 56 percent graduation rate for the school districts that the program is in. Seventy-nine percent of the program's participants go to college, Stachitas said, adding that student-athletes also contributed an estimated 69,000 hours of community service, a requirement of Play It Smart.

The three Baltimore schools have graduated kids and sent them to college at about the same rate, Stachitas said.

In most cases, the foundation sends a grant of about $25,000-$30,000 each year to the schools for Play It Smart, with about $10,000-$15,000 going for support costs, including training, technology, curriculum materials and planning tools. The rest of the money goes to fund the salary of an academic coach, usually on a part-time basis, Stachitas said. That coach is intended to be a full member of the football staff, having access to the players throughout the year and guiding their development on and off the field.

While attempting to get more school systems and schools to take part in Play It Smart, Stachitas said the foundation is hoping that systems will take on more of the funding obligation.

Specifically, the NFF has notified schools that beginning with the next school year, they will have to fund the academic coach position, with the foundation picking up the other costs.

Stachitas said the NFF, which he said has provided nearly $500,000 in funding to Baltimore in the eight years the program has been in operation here, reached an agreement with Patterson and Edmondson for this year to provide grants of $7,500 for each school for their respective academic coaches, with the schools picking up the rest of the tab. He said Forest Park will receive the same grant if the school agrees to fund its coach, and Pyatt said the school has found money for the program.

But that deal only applies for the 2008-09 school year.

After that, the schools will have to come up with their share of the money, and in a school system like Baltimore's where lean is the word of the day, finding that kind of funding could be tough.

It can, and should, be done, and it's happening in other school systems.

For instance, in Houston, Stachitas said, the school system agreed not only to add an academic coach in every high school, up from the three this year, but all of those coaches will be full-time employees of the system, with corresponding pay and benefits.

In addition, the NFF has agreed to go into partnership with the local Touchdown Club to raise $400,000 to pick up the operational costs for the local Play It Smart.

Of course, the dynamics between Baltimore and Houston, where the passion for high school football is matched perhaps only by oil revenues, are different.

But surely there are enough billionaire football team owners, millionaire professional football players and local sporting goods manufacturers around town to ensure that 100 or so high school kids will have as much of a fighting chance in the classroom as they do on the playing field, right?

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