In uptown New York City, Harlem kids are invited to dart around StreetSquash‘s 19,000 square-foot facility. The nonprofit is essentially a dedicated after-school tutoring program that also teaches its participants, ages 11 to 18, the ins-and-outs of squash. The sport is generally associated with stuffy country clubs and most of the StreetSquashers had never heard of the sport prior to joining the program. An unlikely pairing, it’s nonetheless proven relatively successful.
Out on the squash courts, sneakers screech and racquets lob, volley and drive shots smartly against walls. The kids laugh, yell and socialize. But in the facility’s quiet backrooms, the real work is being done. Students, grades 6 to 12, are prompted by supervising adults to keep-up on their academics. These advisors drill students on everything from mathematics to general literacy, in preparation for college, and communicate with the students’ public school teachers throughout the week, so students stay on the ball.
The nonprofit was originally founded to “battle for kids that deserve more people battling for them,” founder George Polsky told Penta, when we met him at their large facility on 115th and Lenox. Each year, Polsky raises $1.5 million to support the programming and maintain the facility, hitting-up foundations like The Charles Hayden Foundation and the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation and deep-pocketed private industry squash players that sit on his board, like Mort Zuckerman of U.S. News & World or Steve Green chairman of the board for the publicly-traded company SL Green Realty.
It is no secret that there is need for such programs. A study by the Pell Institute found that 90% of low-income, first generation college attendees fail to graduate, versus the national average’s 40%. “Frankly, it’s not a level playing field and I don’t feel okay about that, so I’m trying to do my part to give them the opportunities and resources they should have,” Polsky said.
All StreetSquashers that complete the program wind up graduating from high school, and 85% go on to graduate from college. These statistics only include those who have completed StreetSquash’ s entire program; the most at-risk youngsters who drop-out do not typically mirror these results. But Polsky recalls one alumnus who dropped-out in eleventh grade only to return years later. “She came back and worked [at StreetSquash] and we helped her complete college,” he said. Now, she has a family and is in graduate school.
In the late 90s, while studying for his masters in social work at New York University, Polsky began puzzling over how to reach the underserved public school kids in Harlem. Upon doing field work in the community, the former teacher and lifelong squash player, managed to get access to squash courts and study space at the Harvard Club and Columbia University; partnered with three Harlem schools; and secured $120,000 in funding. In 1999, StreetSquash was born.
But just before launching the program, he remembers thinking, ‘I have everything but I need kids. What if they have no desire to come?’ “You could smell the desperation on me,” he says.
About 30 kids signed up that opening day. Since then, StreetSquash has established its footprint in the community. Its $9 million facility provides an outlet for- 180 students in its after-school program; a day-time program for 200 kids whose schools do not have physical education; a summer camp; and support for college-attending alumni. In other words, in a given year, StreetSquash reaches about 500 kids, though the scope of its programming varies outside the after-school sessions.
The goal of the nonprofit was never to reach all of Harlem’s youngsters, Polsky explained. “My philosophy was to do long-term and intensive work with a limited number of kids,” he said. “I didn’t want to be Boys & Girls Club and serve 3,000 kids once a month.” Instead, StreetSquash kids come four days per week, three weekdays and Saturday, throughout the entire school year and summer.
Since its founding fourteen years ago, eleven other such organizations have cropped-up throughout the country, including Racquet Up in Detroit and SquashWise in Baltimore. All combine academics with squash. This summer marked the one year anniversary of StreetSquash Newark, which will hopefully replicate the Harlem success in New Jersey.
By Robert Milburn