Team Building D.C. students have fewer sporting chances than suburbanites.

Running on Empty: H.D. Woodson’s pool closed well before the school did.
Darrow Montgomery

The best the city’s public schools have to offer, sportswise, was on display Saturday night.

Ballou beat McKinley, 59–52, to win the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association boys basketball title, the public high school championship.

The title tilt, as it does year after year after year, had a Big Game vibe.

The line to get into the game stretched from the front entrance of the Coolidge Senior High gym to the parking lot, about a 25-minute wait. The security measures were borderline oppressive. It’s easier to get on an El Al flight than into a high school basketball game in D.C. Everybody had to go through metal detectors, and it seemed every third person in line got wanded. Every bag was put through an X-ray machine.

Kids in the suburbs don’t have to put up with such hassles.

But the game made the wait worthwhile.

“It’s a big event,” says Troy Mathieu, the new athletic director for the D.C. Public Schools, standing on the baseline during the second half. “Twenty years from now, these kids will remember playing in this game for the city championship.”

When Ballou’s Donte Thomas spun his way through the entire McKinley lineup for a layup with 3:10 left in the fourth quarter, breaking open what only seconds earlier had been a tie game, the crowd of thousands inside the biggest prep gym in town let out a whoop to raise the roof.

It was a tingly moment that only the best sporting events, at any level, provide.

Neither Mayor Adrian M. Fenty nor schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was there to get tingles. No, the two folks now gutting and then, well, doing something else to the D.C. school system didn’t show up on this biggest night of the winter sports calendar. (Rhee was seen that night at a basketball game with a mayor, all right—the Cal–UCLA game in Berkeley, Calif., which she attended with former Golden Bears guard and current Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson.)

Neither Fenty nor Rhee is to blame for the problems plaguing the city’s athletic programs, of course. It takes a village to destroy D.C.’s scholastic sports programs so thoroughly.

The decline was already in full swing by 1978, when the school board voted to cut off funding for coaches in all junior varsity sports and also ended payments to assistants and head coaches for most varsity sports. (Only head coaches in football, basketball, baseball, track, and volleyball continued to get stipends.)

A 1987 story in the Washington Post by Thomas Boswell advocated an entire overhaul of D.C. school athletics. Boswell outlined how the school system had an operating budget of $482 million that year—“One of the nation’s more generous, on a per student basis,” he wrote—of which $387,000 went to athletics.

That’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

The city has opened its wallet lately to help some sports. The football stadiums at DCIAA schools, built almost entirely with tax money, are amazing, and the artificial surface used at the new fields should help the league’s flagging soccer programs. The city is also building the Taj Mahal of aquatic centers on the Wilson Senior High campus in Tenleytown.

But given how far D.C. athletics still have to go, Fenty and Rhee still should have been at the Ballou–McKinley game. Again, as far as school sports goes, it doesn’t get any better than the DCIAA basketball championship.

Hints of the unlevel playing field between city kids and their counterparts in the suburbs were all over the Washington Post’s sports section the morning after the DCIAA title game. The write-up of Ballou–McKinley was surrounded by stories of other high school championships held in the region the same day: the Maryland state indoor track and field championships, the Maryland state championship wrestling tournament, and the Virginia swimming and diving championships.

Only five DCIAA schools even have swim teams.

There is no wrestling in D.C. public schools.

There is no indoor track for D.C. kids to run on.

Oh, there are indoor track teams at DCIAA schools, but no longer any usable tracks. So all events are held outside the city.

The city championships, for example, now take place in Maryland; DCIAA rents out the Prince George’s County Sports and Learning Center in Landover, which was built as part of the county’s deal with the Washington Redskins when their stadium was constructed in the mid-’90s.

The District has since built the Washington Nationals a billion-dollar baseball stadium, of course, but kids here didn’t get a place to run in return.

“Why hasn’t the city built a track for the kids?” asks Cathy Reilly.

Reilly is the mother of kids who played for various athletic teams while attending Wilson. Her experiences dealing with the system led her to found the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators, a group that advocates for the city’s public school students.

“They used to make the kids run at the Armory, on wood boards, and where nobody could keep track of how many laps anybody had run,” says Reilly. “It was awful. There are good track programs at some schools. But now there’s no facility anywhere in the city.”

The Post, in the sports section and others, has also run stories lately about the impact the economic downturn will have on school athletics in the region. Folks in surrounding counties are getting a taste of the anti-sports sentiment that for so long was the rule in the District.

A Feb. 20 story, for example, described how Fairfax County is considering getting rid of gymnastics and how Loudoun County might curtail freshman and junior-varsity sports.

“They’re cutting all the programs that kids in D.C. never had,” says Jordan Spooner, a longtime watchdog of D.C. school athletics now serving as a program officer for the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a child advocacy group.

There are a lot of sports D.C. kids don’t have that everybody else does.

“Spingarn is across the road from a golf course,” says Nancy Huvendick of the 21st Century School Fund, another nonprofit geared toward improving the lot of public school students here. “But there’s no golf team at Spingarn. That’s ridiculous.”

There’s no golf team at a lot of D.C. schools. Wilson fields a squad now, but there hasn’t been enough competition among public schools here to have a city golf tournament since the 1970s.

Centreville High School in Chantilly has 45 sanctioned sports teams students can play for. Wilson, which fields far more athletic teams than any other school in the city, has just 25.

“I think about these things whenever the Washington Post puts out its lists of the best players in the region,” says Huvendick. “I carefully go through all the [All-Met] lists, just to see how many kids from D.C. schools make it. And there aren’t very many. Ever. It’s just sad. For some reason, there’s no push to improve things in athletics here. That’s been going on forever.”

By my count, 558 area students were named to Post All-Met teams in the last round of winter, spring, and fall sports.

Five kids, or less than 1 percent, were from D.C. public schools.

Our Readers Say

It has been apparent for years that there is little or no desire on the part of the city and the current administration to improve the quality of the DC Public Schools athletic program. Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty would rather waste money on outside consultants and other entities that drain the system of funding that should be used to support a viable athletic program for our student/athletes. This dire situation is compounded by the reluctance of the only major daily paper (the Washington Post) to afford the DCIAA any coverage or recognition which might spur awareness or additional support to bolster the city's athletic programs. I attended the middle school basketball championship two weeks ago and again there was no one from the administration (athletic director or rep from the Chancellor's office) to acknowledge the students for their accomplishments.
Thanks for tracking this. Visiting the SW DMV last summer I was shocked by the state of the faciltiies at the local middle school. Took some photos:
The University of the District of Columbia is washing away. No, literally! It appears that the University pool is leaching dangerous amounts of treated pool water somewhere into the surrounding environment, sources say. Outside engineers have determined that the pool is losing over 8,200 gallons of treated pool water every day. This is a problem, engineers say. The problem is compounded by the fact that we cannot determine where the water is going, and what it is doing. What we do know is that that much water moving in any direction unchecked is erosive and dangerous. This has added importance, because the lost water has been treated with pool chemicals. Add to that the fact that the school is on a hill, on the edge of a residential and commercial community. It is uphill from Rock Creek Park and the Van Ness subway. And where does water flow? Always downhill.

And if that’s not bad enough, the University brass has known of this for weeks now. To circumvent a pool inspection by DCRA, the University’s plan was to soften the already understaffed DCRA inspectors with friendly phone calls for assistance on seemingly mundane issues, and then rush the inspector around the facility, distracting him with smoke and mirrors. It almost worked. DCRA Inspector Ronny Taylor failed the pool anyway. He saw water on the floor in the pump room and a few other things, sources say, but he still does not know about the massive leaking, despite the fact that the outside engineer reported it to Ms. Thomas. He is also apparently still unaware that the plumbing and renovation work was done by UDC without obtaining the necessary permits. Athletic Director Patricia Thomas has forbidden her staff to offer the information, threatening anyone who does with not being a team player, a form of government treason. Also, it’s code for: “Remember, you serve at the will of the President.”

In this economy, even those protected by the union are fearful. Ms. Thomas has a lot to lose if this pool is not online, sources say. For reasons of her own, Ms. Thomas took what was originally a simple drain cover replacement job for under $1,000 and expanded it into an almost $50,000 boondoggle. Here’s what happened.

Ms. Thomas was originally faced with approving the replacement of about four drain covers, as required by a new federal law, back in December. The replacement drain covers had already been obtained by pool operator Thunder Lane prior to Ms. Thomas’ arrival at UDC, so that UDC’s pool would be in compliance with the new law. (The drain covers had been paid for under an MOU with an area school, so they didn’t cost UDC a penny.) The two-hour installation job would have had the pool back online before the Christmas break was over. At that time, the pool was full of water, the floor was dry, and by all accounts, in compliance with no complaints. This job would have cost the University under a thousand dollars, sources say.

Ms. Thomas, only weeks on the job, decided not to use the original contractor, and instead convinced the University to hire a friend from her old job as the contractor. Under the new contractor, the cost grew from less than a thousand dollars to over forty thousand dollars. Ms. Thomas wanted to put a new surface coat on the pool walls so it would look like they did a lot of work to make things better, sources say. But when the new contractor used jack hammers to remove the old plaster from the pool walls, splintering cracks in the foundation began to appear. During the now-major renovation, everything that can go wrong has and still is going wrong. Workers were ordered to patch it and fill it. Now the pool has water in it, but the water won’t stay. The pool water meter has been removed, and the city tap is running on automatic to replace what is being lost.

Ms. Thomas had a personality clash with the University’s long-time pool guru, Thunder Lane. According to an internal document, Mr. Lane reported Ms. Thomas to union representatives for harassing and physically threatening him on the job.

Lane is different, sources acknowledge, referencing his Hare Krishna faith. But he is a wizard with that pool. He has run it for over thirty years. He has been the University pool operator, and Ms. Thomas cut him out of the loop for purely personal reasons.

Only a few years ago, Lane had the University upgrade the flow system to a computerized hydraulic monitoring system to maintain water quality and use fewer chemicals. Well, because Mr. Lane’s intended replacement, Robert L. Patterson (the present pool operator at Howard University) could not understand how it worked, Ms. Thomas ordered the pool contractor to cut the expensive state-of-the-art computer and hydraulic system out, and dumb it down to a more basic system that Mr. Patterson can understand. This was like ripping out the University’s fiber optic phone system, and putting in an old-fashioned switchboard because the new operator couldn’t use Windows XP. Oh, one more thing. Ms. Thomas’ best friend happens to be the Athletic Director at Howard University, where Mr. Patterson now works.

It’s one thing to hire loyalty, sources say, but these people don’t know the pool, or more importantly, its history. Nonetheless, Ms. Thomas said she does not want Lane doing anything. And he must communicate to her only through the facilities manager, Butch Cherry, who sources say openly admits knowing nothing about pools and loathes being put in the middle of it. Attempts to reach Mr. Lane for a comment today have not been successful.

So the tap water is running, the costly, chemically-treated potentially hazardous heated pool water is running (but we don’t know where). The cost is running, and we’ve got a big problem, sources say. Someone needs to get over here and take a look at what’s going on. This is crazy.

Last year I had to replace a gutter at my home because a constant stream of rain water was cutting a trench in my front yard. Imagine over 8200 gallons every day. That’s over two million gallons a year of chemical water. That’s like an underground aqueduct stripping the soil from its already questionable foundation and contaminating everything in its path.
This is an interesting commentary on the full support (or lack of) of activities and education for our young people. I am sure that many have noticed that our best athletes in the City are now attending Catholic schools. As the ability to afford private education diminishes under the current economic state, we have an opportunity to reclaim our youth to public schools.

Are we ready to provide them a robust program - academically, facilities and extra-curriculars?

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