At Patterson, Kelley Bagdasarian helps athletes improve their grades

Kelley Bagdasarian, center, a full-time academic advisor at Patterson, talks with football players Tynard Barfield, left, and Sherrod Hawkes, right, during a recent session at the school.
Kelley Bagdasarian, center, a full-time academic advisor at Patterson, talks with football players Tynard Barfield, left, and Sherrod Hawkes, right, during a recent session at the school. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

When Sherrod Hawkes transferred to Patterson from Overlea last fall, he didn't have much interest in studying. He just wanted to play football.

The powerful downhill ball carrier wanted to play in college, but after two years of high school, his grade point average was 0.77 on a 4.0 scale.


Hawkes, who had not realized his football career would soon end if he didn't hit the books, found out how much ground he had to make up when he met Patterson's academic coach, Kelley Bagdasarian. She pointed out that he needed a 2.5 grade point average and 800 on his SAT just to qualify to play NCAA sports.

So Hawkes buckled down, and after a year in Bagdasarian's Baltimore Scholar Athlete Program, he's halfway there.

His GPA has reached 2.5, but he still has to boost his SAT score before the college coaches interested in his football talents — including those from Towson, Temple, James Madison and North Carolina Central — can even consider seriously recruiting him.

"Overlea never had nothing like this," Hawkes said. "They never had a teacher who would help you out and get you ready for college. I didn't know anything about this stuff until I came to Patterson."

Neither did many of his peers.

Hawkes is one of the 70 to 100 Clippers a year who go beyond Bagdasarian's mandatory study hall and immerse themselves in the Baltimore Scholar Athlete Program, which includes everything from tutoring to mentoring, SAT prep to life skills and financial literacy classes. She also takes them on tours of Maryland and Virginia colleges to learn about the admissions process and financial aid opportunities.

Tynard Barfield, a Patterson running back and cornerback, is another success story. The junior improved his GPA from 1.5 to 3.3 and now takes honors courses.

"If you want to play college sports, listen to Coach Kelley, because she's giving you the truth," Barfield said. "You need grades and you've got to be willing to work."

Bagdasarian knows how to connect with the kids. Also the girls' basketball coach and an assistant with the football team, she has a master's degree in athletic counseling and is willing to give as much time to students as they need. In her classroom, known as The Zone and featuring a sports motif, they have a quiet haven where they can study or get help with their homework.

Her track record is so good and the kids have so much fun in the BSAP that most newcomers are recruited by the club veterans.

"It really is the culture here now," Bagdasarian said. "My upperclassmen do most of the promoting for me. We don't have to worry about the perception of them caring about their grades. Around here, it's the cool thing to do."

While Patterson had an overall graduation rate of 76 percent between 1996 and 2012, according to Maryland Department of Education statistics, 100 percent of the students in Bagdasarian's program have received their diplomas.

Patterson football coach Larry Mitchell said the players just need someone to guide them toward college in the classroom the way he does on the field.

"They go around and they have this dream to go to college," Mitchell said, "and a lot of them get into the 11th and 12th grade with these big ol' dreams and don't realize they don't have a chance. They shot themselves in the foot in ninth and 10th grade. One of the things I eliminated was allowing guys to play with 60s. They get a 60-65 [percent], they still fail in my book."


In his second season at Patterson, Mitchell continues the legacy started in 2000 when former coach Roger Wrenn received a grant from the National Football Foundation's Play It Smart initiative. The grant paid for an academic coach for the football team — Bagdasarian — who started with mandatory study hall.

At first, it wasn't easy to get players to buy into anything more. One of her earliest converts and greatest success stories, Phillip Matthews, had little guidance at home, where both parents were mired in the drug culture. Education was not a priority.

"At first everybody was like, 'Nah, I don't want to get in this program,'" Matthews said. "But five or six of us started going every day and being active in it, and she showed us what life's supposed to be like, a normal life … with somebody who takes your education serious, somebody that can use sports as a platform to do better things with your life."

As a freshman and sophomore, Matthews played Pop Warner football. He didn't go to school enough to play for Patterson, skipping 120 days. When Pop Warner ended after tenth grade, he had to go to class to play for the Clippers, but he didn't like it.

Bagdasarian won him over the day she went to his neighborhood.

"The first week of school, she showed up smack dab in the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods in East Baltimore," Matthews said. "That right there showed me that this Caucasian lady is coming to this neighborhood to show us she's serious about what she's doing, and she wasn't afraid.

"She blended right in. That goes a long way with a person like me. She wasn't afraid to come there. She stayed there the whole day. She communicated with the neighbors. It was a crazy experience. Once that happened, I started believing in her even more."

The Clippers' quarterback thrived in the program. He missed only three days of school his junior and senior years and graduated on time in 2002.

"It wasn't even about sports no more to me, and that's a major factor in my success, because I lived my life through sports. Once I got with Kel, education got to be more important to me than sports," said Matthews, who went on to graduate from Mount Ida College in Boston where he not only started at quarterback and led Division III lacrosse in points per game twice, but became a Dean's List student.

Matthews, now 29, works in Baltimore City with Teach for America and coaches Pop Warner football while working toward a master's degree at Johns Hopkins. He returns regularly to recount his story to Bagdasarian's student athletes.

Such success stories motivate the Clippers, but so does Bagdasarian. She's turned The Zone into an academic version of the football field or the basketball court.

"We just make it a competition," she said. "They're all athletes. They want competition, so we've just turned caring about your grades and getting good grades and good SAT scores into a competition. It is amazing how often they talk about their grades. They're not just talking about how they did on the football field. They're talking about how well they did on a test."

The Clippers want that 2.5 GPA. Good report cards hang on the Hall of Fame Board. Achievers enjoy quarterly pizza parties, sometimes attended by Ravens Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden, who along with his mother Cassandra Ogden founded the service-oriented Jonathan Ogden Club at Patterson in 1999, something Bagdasarian incorporated into her program.

When the original Play It Smart grant paid for a part-time academic coach, the Ogdens supplemented her salary to make it full time.

Bob Wade, coordinator of athletics for Baltimore City Public Schools, said he would like to see the program — which is open to all student athletes at Patterson — duplicated at other schools, but the cost can be prohibitive.


When the Play It Smart grant ran out about five years ago, Bagdasarian only maintained the BSAP because then-principal Laura D'Anna put her on the city schools payroll. Two other schools also had Play It Smart grants, but those programs faded away.

Today, other city schools provide academic support to their athletes, but not to the magnitude of Patterson's program.

Dunbar and Digital Harbor also have academic coaches and last month, Douglass principal Antonio Hurt introduced the 1st and Goal initiative — designed by the Family League of Baltimore and funded by NFL Player Engagement — which has similar promise to change the academic culture for the Ducks, beginning with football players this fall and possibly expanding to other athletes next year.

"You'd love to have that in every school," Wade said. "Someone to work with the student athletes and to help prepare them for the next step. What Kelley has done and continues to do is just remarkable, and I applaud it."