Friday, April 15, 2011

A soccer “school” in Chicago? Maybe we are that desperate to boost school quality

A part of me wants to think that the United Neighborhood Organization has come up with a truly dippy idea when it talks of wanting to create a new elementary school in Chicago that would use soccer and athletics as its focus.

The group, which already includes among its activities the operation of nine charter schools in neighborhoods with heavy Latino population where the area public schools have declined so badly that the locals don’t trust them, has plans for yet another charter school.

YET THIS ONE, tentatively proposed for 51st Street and Homan Avenue in the Southwest Side’s Gage Park neighborhood, would use soccer as a theme.

Students who manage to get accepted to the school through a lottery of area applicants would get soccer as a large part of their physical education requirements, and students would be expected to take part in after-school drills and scrimmages.

Part of the point is to take young people who show some promise with the sport, and give them some intense training so as to develop them as futbol players (I mean real football, not that stupid game the Chicago Bears likely won’t be playing this autumn).

It is not definite if the Chicago Fire professional soccer team will have any involvement with the academy, although team representatives were present, along with some from the University of Illinois at Chicago soccer program, when UNO officials announced their plans earlier this month for a soccer school.

THERE IS ONE other thing that isn’t specific – the academics, although UNO officials insist that students at the soccer school will get a rigorous educational curriculum that will prepare them for high school. If the idea works well enough, UNO may someday use the charter school concept to create a soccer-themed high school that the elementary school would feed into.

Regardless of whether they operate their own high school someday, or merely feed into existing high schools, the point of all this is to prepare students who when they get to high school will take on a college-preparatory academic curriculum to get themselves ready to attend college someday.

That is the key factor, and the one that will decide whether this idea has any merit, or if it really is dippy at heart.

Because UNO officials say they see one goal of this program to prepare Latino neighborhood youth to go to college. By developing their athletic skills, it might make it possible for them to be good enough ballplayers to get the limited athletic scholarships available for the so-called lesser sports.

UNLIKE MEN’S FOOTBALL and basketball programs, many big colleges don’t feel the need to have every single team member on a full-ride scholarship. So one usually has to be a particularly skilled athlete who won’t have problems complying with the academic requirements to be eligible for athletic scholarships to get that full-ride for soccer.

I’m going to be curious to see how academics is integrated into the program. Or, as the Chicago Tribune reported, if the integration ends with the idea of naming school classrooms after the nations of the world that have hosted the World Cup tournament (including the United States in 1994) since it was first created in 1930.

Because it doesn’t do anyone any good to have a young athlete go off to college and flunk out after one year because they couldn’t cut it academically. It is instances such as those that are such a waste, because the sport was allowed to interfere with a person developing themselves to get ahead in life.

And as for those who might want to think that the athletic skills alone are enough to play professionally and set one-self up for life, I have seen too many ballplayers who signed some “big money” contract – only to wind up spending it all too quickly or losing it all through bad investments that they have nothing to show for it.

MY FEAR IS that we may have some Latino youth developing in Chicago who will think that developing the perfect bicycle kick in and of itself is the key to success in life, rather than realizing that developing the kick (along with the more mundane, but necessary, skills of passing and shooting the ball) merely gives them access to the venues (the universities themselves) that will prepare them to succeed in life.

Then again, it’s not like this problem would be limited to the students at this school. I have seen too many teenagers throughout the years, particularly among African-American youth, who are convinced that their ball-handling skills on the basketball court are the be-all and end-all to life.

I have also seen too many who used those skills to get their chance to play college-level basketball, only to fail to take advantage of their time while on a university campus that could help boost themselves as individuals.

I’d hate to think that UNO, a 27-year-old activist group that takes on so many projects to try to improve life in Latino neighborhoods, is going to wind up putting many Latino youths in the same mindset – with the only difference being that they’re creating kids who learn to dribble a ball with their foot, rather than with their fingertips.


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