A league of their own: Giving girls their first taste of baseball

Many elementary schools don’t require physical education, and a lot of girls never learn to compete

WASHINGTON – The tests at Savoy Elementary School are littered with baseball analogies:

“Hit it out of the park!”

“Three strikes and you’re out!”

Chris Bergfalk, a teacher at Savoy, finds it ironic. The emphasis on testing has pushed physical education off the curriculum at Savoy, like 22 percent of public elementary schools across the country where P.E. isn't required. Many Savoy students don’t really know too much about baseball at all.

Savoy is in Anacostia, a ward of Washington, D.C., that's only a mile and a half but feels a world away from the U.S. Capitol. Kids in this neighborhood grow up around poverty, violence and transcience, and for many, school is the most stable part of their day. While boys are expected to play sports -- and have easy access to neighborhood pick-up games, many girls in Anacostia never learn to compete.

But on this Monday morning, the school gym is packed with 8-year-olds, clutching plastic bats and tennis balls. For the last four years, the organization Home Run Baseball Camp has been volunteering twice a week at Savoy to teach baseball to its third-graders, giving many of the girls their first taste of organized sports.

“If you play baseball, you can get stronger,” said Chenae Williams, one of the program’s mini-sluggers. “If you play football, you can get stronger. If you play basketball, you can get stronger and I think you can get taller.” 

Coach John McCarthy, better known as Coach Mac, is the founder and director of Home Run. He said it’s not just about baseball, but also a baseline for life.

“It’s about learning to come back from defeat, being gracious in victory, having some resilience, having some self-confidence, being accountable to your team mates and yourselves,” he said.

On Saturdays, students can come in for extra school help and attention. Baseball – following the schoolwork and pizza – is the lure. And Patrice Arrington is the resident rock star. A former professional volleyball player, Arringto's focus is teaching self-confidence along with the ability to connect the bat with the ball.

“These girls want to become great people, like lawyers, doctors or architects,” said Arrington. “A lot of them love sports. But they don’t feel like they’ll be able to go to the next level. There’s not any positive role models, not any positive feedback.”

Patrice Arrington spends a lot of her Saturdays coaching the kids at Savoy. She said Title IX, the law that requires schools to give girls and boys an equal opportunity to play sports, isn't even seen across the board in Washington, D.C.'s public schools.

Third grade is a critical age too. Educators say it’s the year that kids stop "learning to read" and start "reading to learn." Learning the fundamentals of sport when a child is younger can turn them into athletes. Waiting until middle and upper school to learn to play sports can be too late.

According to Coach Mac, growing up in a neighborhood with a low literacy rate, high joblessness and high crime will present many of these children with a number of hurdles. Overcoming that is a tall order for a plastic bat. 

But Bergfalk, who comes in on Saturdays to give his students extra tutoring, said exposing the kids to a broader way of seeing life is meaningful in itself. He recalled one Saturday when he gave his students hot chocolate and bagels with cream cheese on both sides. The children were all grinning, he said, amazed at the unusually generous dollop of cream cheese and calling their hot cocoa “lattes.” 

“And this one kid said… he’s smiling ear-to-ear and he was looking at all of his friends, eating breakfast, “ remembered Bergfalk. “And he says, ‘Oh, this is what real people eat for breakfast.’”

The baseball may not be real baseball. But Chenae said she believes that playing baseball will get her to college faster. And that seems real enough.

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