Natalie Randolph will make her debut with the Coolidge Colts on Friday. She’s brought a lot of attention to the D.C. Public Schools since being hired a few months ago as perhaps the only female high school head football coach in the country. Randolph was on the cover of Parade magazine this week, and Coolidge’s game with Archbishop Carroll High School will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. The sports network has been given reality-show-like access to the new coach and her team since the hiring, which was overseen by Friends of Bedford, a New York-based education group that effectively runs the Takoma school.
Some folks might think that giving a woman a job that had historically gone to men means gender equity is the name of the game in DCPS athletics.
Keenan Keller knows the opposite is true. He believes the more important news about Coolidge Senior High School is it’s a place where girls are only found on the sidelines.
“Celebrating a woman football coach when you have a situation that is so unfair to girl athletes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” a father of two girls who attend city schools and love playing sports.
Keller has nothing against Randolph or Coolidge. That’s just the place getting all the attention for its athletics as the school year kicks off this week. And, Randolph or no, he knows Coolidge fares horribly when comparing its overall sports offerings with those at private schools in the city or public schools in neighboring jurisdictions.
Take, for example, Randolph’s alma mater: Sidwell Friends, a private school in Upper Northwest, offers nine athletic teams for girls this fall alone. That’s about the same number offered by a typical public school in the suburbs: Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, located a little north of the D.C. border in Montgomery County, also has nine girls teams; my own Falls Church High School will field seven girls teams, because varsity and junior varsity soccer squads, which play in the fall in D.C. and Maryland, play in the spring in Fairfax County.
Yet last fall, Coolidge fielded just one girls team: volleyball.
In other words, Afghan girls in Taliban-controlled areas have only slightly fewer athletic opportunities as those stuck in some portions of Michelle Rhee’s fiefdom.
Keller, whose day job is the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s majority counsel, is out to get the girls here a level playing field. He’s pushing for an independent investigation of the sports offerings within DCPS to determine whether the agency is in compliance with Title IX. That’s the federal regulation, put in place in 1972 that reads simply: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
In theory, Title IX guarantees gender equality in such things as extracurricular activities offered in public school systems.
In practice, alas, nothing’s guaranteed. Even without an official investigation, Keller has looked around enough to feel comfortable surmising that the city is “wildly out of compliance” with the federal code.
Keller admits selfishness is the prime motivator for taking action to correct the situation: His two girls, though not yet in high school, are serious soccer players with local youth clubs. He wants them to have athletic options as plentiful as those available to boys in DCPS and girls at private and suburban schools.
“We’re [launching the Title IX investigation] so we can start taking some official steps, engaging people within the administration, so they understand that this has to change,” he says. “Girl athletes in D.C. need people to step up and defend their interests. I say that as a father of two girl athletes in the D.C. schools.”
Currently, girls soccer is in tatters in the city’s public high schools. Malaika Nicholas, a recent graduate of Banneker and by acclaim the school’s best soccer player in recent years, can tell you the horror stories.
Only four DCPS schools—Wilson, School Without Walls, Bell and Banneker—even fielded girls soccer teams last year, her senior season. (Wilson, therefore, was the only traditional public high school in the city to have a team.) And Banneker, Nicholas says, didn’t really field a squad.
“We never had enough players. Never,” she says. “We would have 7 or 8 players, tops, show up for our games, meaning we would literally have to negotiate with the other team every game and ask them if they would play 7-on-7 or 8-on-8, just so we wouldn’t have to forfeit. It was really frustrating and embarrassing.”
She says she asked the Banneker administration for help in getting bodies for the girls soccer team for her last two years. It never came.
“I was told by [an administrator] last year that I’m the team leader, so recruiting players is my job,” she says, with an embarrassed cackle. “I’m a student! So I’m walking around the hallways, putting up fliers and yelling ‘Who wants to play soccer?’ and trying to get kids to sign up.”
The greatest symptom of the disconnect between the Banneker administration and students: Nicholas says the coach during her senior year was such a non-presence that she honestly can’t remember the coach’s full name. “I think it was Britney Something,” she says. Nicholas recalls regularly running practices herself.
Nicholas is now enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta, and says her days as a soccer recruiter for Banneker and any other DCPS program are over. In fact, she’s going to advise her 12-year-old sister to not play ball for a public school.
“I wouldn’t want my sister to go through what I went through,” she says. “Competitively speaking, playing soccer in DCPS isn’t worth it. It didn’t help my game at all.”
Marcus Ellis, who is now beginning his second year as athletic director for DCPS, admits that he hasn’t been able to solve many of the most serious problems that ailed scholastic sports here before he got the job, including the lack of girls sports in the city schools.
But Ellis insists he’s trying.
“A lot of what I’m doing is preaching to the coaches and athletic directors at the schools to try new things, to offer more clinics, to do outreach,” he says. “You have to get people in the building to show interest in introducing girls to new sports. It’s hard to do that from a central location. We need to start as low as elementary school. We want to have high school seniors go talk to middle school girls, and the middle school girls talk to the fourth grade girls [about participating in sports].”
Ellis confesses that no amount of clinics or student mentoring programs can cure the girls sports drought overnight.
And Keller’s not predicting he’ll feel like celebrating the new Coolidge football coach anytime soon.
“There is no quick fix here,” Keller says. “You can go out and grab a quick headline, like getting a woman to coach football. But that has nothing to do with sports equity for girls. At the end of the day, I want people to go back and look at opportunities for girl athletes at that school. If they don’t have the same level of opportunity that the boys have, than isn’t having her coaching just hollow rhetoric? I mean, it’s good for her, but that’s as far as it goes.”