In fall 2014, in her first year as Baltimore City Lacrosse & Leadership program director at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School, Jenny Michael set out to field a respectable girls team. She would have to raise money and put in long hours to get the program going, but the main problem was more fundamental: Almost no students knew what lacrosse was.
Dymin Gerow, then a seventh-grader, didn't know and didn't want to play. She liked basketball, her grades were bad, and she was hyperactive. So Michael approached her one day at the East Baltimore school. She had a bet to make: If Michael could show that every basketball move had a lacrosse analog, Dymin would have to come to a week of practice. Her lacrosse education began with a roll dodge (spin move) and a split dodge (crossover).
It was a lesson she now realizes she needed. Her real education will continue far from the city this fall, at Episcopal High in Alexandria, Va., a $50,000-plus-a-year boarding school she'll be attending on a full scholarship. This is Michael's hope — that interest in an unfamiliar sport will pay off with opportunities otherwise unavailable.
At nine other partner programs on the East Coast, lacrosse is seen as the master key that can unlock athletic potential, academic improvement and behavioral stability. Michael, an Ellicott City native, pointed to the "cyclical effect" of involvement: When students get invested in the program, their grades go up. When their grades go up, they're more likely to do the work they must to prosper.
"Over and over, you see it with these kids," Michael said. "They didn't have an identity, so they fulfilled what their small Baltimore City society has told them that they're supposed to be, and they were. And then they get a new positive identity and they fully embrace it, and that's the difference."
BCLL came to the city two years ago via Harlem Lacrosse & Leadership, a nonprofit whose first employee coincidentally came from Baltimore.
Jake Klein, a Forest Hill native, played football and lacrosse at Gilman before attending Washington University in St. Louis. Upon graduation in spring 2009, he went home to work for his family's Klein's ShopRite supermarkets, and then to New York for Thomson Reuters.
It wasn't long before Klein realized the job just wasn't for him. He started volunteering in Harlem and met Simon Cataldo, a teacher with Teach for America at Frederick Douglass Academy I. They introduced lacrosse to Cataldo's middle-school students, and the doors it could open outside the city, and the sport took hold.
As Klein and Cataldo worked to hold study-hall sessions and secure equipment donations and organize trips, test scores shot up and misbehavior referrals fell off. In spring 2011, Harlem Lacrosse & Leadership was founded. Today, four schools in New York have separate boys and girls programs. Another in Boston started this year.
"I told them I'd be doing it for three months. I ended up doing it for roughly three years," said Klein, now an HLL advisory board member.
After Klein moved back to Baltimore to apply to graduate school — he's now close to completing a dual degree at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School — he ran into Josh Michael, Jenny's brother, at a holiday party. Years earlier, he had asked Klein to consider bringing HLL to Commodore, where he taught and helped coach the boys lacrosse team.
A week later, Klein recalled, he was in principal Marc Martin's office, spreading the gospel of HLL's independently funded, school-based, year-round program. It was an easy sell.
"The fact that their outcomes and goals were less aligned around a lacrosse championship and more aligned around high school placement and following those kids and getting them into college and using those connections and ties," Martin said, "I think that's the easy thing that appeals."
Jenny Michael, a standout at Centennial who started 35 games at William & Mary from 2009 to 2012 and taught special education at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary in West Baltimore, was tapped as girls program director. (A boys program will be implemented in 2016-2017, and Klein envisions future expansion across Baltimore.)
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The team's rise has mirrored that of the school, which in 2010 ranked No. 872 out of 875 total in Maryland, based on its test scores, and will enter the next academic year no longer identified by the U.S. Department of Education as a "turnaround" school.
When Michael was volunteering as a girls coach at the school in 2014, she normally had 13 players for a 12-person lineup. In her second year in charge, Michael has a deep roster, with 40 girls, spread out over three grades, and a tried-and-true incentive structure — earn points for good behavior, then redeem them for donated gear, from Under Armour cleats to mouthguards. Recently, Commodore beat a team from Garrison Forest School, its first win over a noncity squad. "That's a year and a half in the making," Michael said.
During recess, the Johns Hopkins women's team sometimes will swing by to catch and throw with Michael's girls, or just to catch up; junior midfielder Haley Schweizer and Dymin have become particularly close.
But Commodore does not play as the Blue Jays do, or like any high-level team, for that matter. The players swarm on defense, attacking in waves of double teams. Every ground ball becomes the game's most important ground ball. Passing and checking are rare. On offense, they run to the goal, Michael explained, until they get stopped.