Home Field Disadvantage Wilson is a tenant at UDC, but you wouldn’t know it from the fields.

Locked Out: DCPS takes a back seat to private schools at UDC.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Athletes in D.C. Public Schools don’t have access to the same facilities their suburban or private-school peers do.

George Arlotto knows this well. He’s been on all sides. As a kid, he was an athlete at Our Lady of Good Counsel, a Catholic prep high school. He’s a former assistant principal at D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, as well as an ex-principal of Wheaton High School in Montgomery County. He’s now associate superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools, and a parent of DCPS students.

So Arlotto was more peeved than surprised when his son, a freshman lacrosse player at Wilson, told him a few weeks ago how the team—a rare D.C. public school lacrosse program—got booted off a field at UDC by campus security so the Maret School’s lax team could practice. Or when his wife, Gina Arlotto, reported watching the track team from the Edmund Burke School yelling at Wilson runners to “Get off our track!” as both squads were trying to work out at UDC. It’s as if nobody told the privates or UDC that Wilson is the official tenant of the city’s only public college this year, while its own compound in Tenleytown is being renovated.

“It’s nothing new,” Arlotto says.

Arlotto’s seen public school athletes diminished before. During his days as a Wilson administrator, the school’s baseball team—which hasn’t lost a DCIAA game in more than a decade and is by far the greatest athletic dynasty in the city’s history—never had a regulation diamond. For all its winning, the Wilson squad had to play home games in the football stadium, which meant there was no right field because of its proximity to Nebraska Avenue. Legendary Wilson baseball manager Eddie Saah, who retired in 2008, spent the last decade of his coaching career pleading with the city to build his kids a field. He never got one. (Meanwhile, the baseball team from Gonzaga College High School, one of D.C.’s more renowned private preps, has long played its home games on the shiny diamond at Hamilton Field in Brentwood Park, a city-owned facility.)

Arlotto also recalls the Wilson crew team getting the heave-ho from Thompson Boat Center in the early 1990s in favor of rowers backed by private Benjamins.

“Wilson was among the first high schools to store its shells at Thompson’s boathouse, and there was a pecking order on where your boats are allowed to hang in the boathouse,” he says. “There were very few schools that had crew teams then. Over a couple years, as St. Albans’ and Gonzaga’s crew teams and other private schools came on board, I noticed that Wilson started getting less and less boat space. And then one day I was at the boathouse, and the crew coach shows me that our shells were now kept out in the parking lot. So we had our athletic director look into it, and we found out the private schools were paying more, so Wilson’s left out in the cold. We got kicked out of the boat center! That was my first taste of, ‘Wow, the privates can push Wilson out!’ Then, it was boats, and now I’m seeing it all over again with lacrosse.”

Alex Wilson, director of academic development at Wilson, says he’s been dealing with UDC administrators since the landlord/tenant deal was hammered out, trying to make the arrangement work for all parties, but his frustration with those in charge at the college has only grown over time. He now says that UDC Athletic Director Patricia Thomas “does not care about school kids.”

Wilson says Thomas’ failure to grant access to the UDC tennis courts to the public school students is typical of what he calls the administration’s “lack of good faith.”

“The courts are right next to the UDC building that houses most of our students,” Wilson says. “At the beginning of the year, we were told we couldn’t use them because they were being renovated. So our kids watched over months as the work was being done and these beautiful tennis courts were built. But as soon as renovation was finished, they put a padlock on the gates and told us we can’t use them. We asked why, and we were told that the courts were going to be a ‘staging area for fire drills.’ Then a few weeks ago, we see the Maret tennis team out practicing on these courts. The kids from Maret have their chairs on the court, and they’re sitting around after practice eating from pizza boxes. I don’t blame the Maret kids, but somebody gave them the keys. How do you think that made our kids feel? From the sports side, we expected so much more from UDC than we got.”

Wilson officials say students have also been denied access to UDC’s gym, locker rooms, and theater this year.

Alan Etter, spokesperson for UDC, says Maret does rent facility space from the school for its athletic teams. (Maret’s website lists UDC as its “home” field for lacrosse.) But Etter denies that Maret or any other private school has ever been shown favoritism over Wilson.

Etter says athletic director Thomas “is not aware that [Wilson athletes] are being kicked out of anything” to make room for Maret’s jocks or jockettes. Etter says he is unaware of any arrangement between UDC and Edmund Burke over use of the track.

“Wilson is on our campus,” says Etter. “So if anybody uses anything, they use it, more than Maret. And that’s an agreement we were happy to get into. Nobody has made this issue apparent to us. Nobody’s come to us and said, ‘Hey! What’s going on?’”

Arlotto says any classism that takes place bothers the parents more than it does the kids. When the Wilson team got the boot from UDC for Maret, the players left the grumbling to their elders, while they walked over to Fort Reno and practiced there.

“My son doesn’t know that it’s not like this everywhere, and we don’t say a whole lot about it,” he says. “I knew he wouldn’t have the same experience that a kid would have in Fairfax, or in Anne Arundel, where there are unbelievable athletic programs. But as parents, we’re OK with the situation. I’m disappointed that DCPS hasn’t done a better job of organizing things at all the schools, but Wilson has incredible programs, and I know the athletic director at Wilson [Mitch Gore] is going 24/7 to offer more than 25 teams, and keep all these programs alive.”

There is a lot of activity at Wilson and other DCPS schools to level the playing field between public schools and the privates. Wilson’s state-of-the-art aquatic center opened at the beginning of last school year, for example. On a wholly related note, last week Wilson’s 200-meter freestyler, Callie Fosburgh, was named to The Washington Post’s All-Met swim squad. (There’s still a ways to go, of course: Fosburgh was the only DCIAA representative out of the nearly 200 athletes named first- or second-team All-Met in any winter sport.)

And though it came too late for Saah, Wilson’s baseball team finally got its own field, complete with a right field, last year at Fort Reno. The team is still beating the crap out of all comers in DCIAA.

Elsewhere around the city, once H.D. Woodson Senior High School’s new gridiron is completed, all DCPS varsity football teams, who for decades were stuck on unlit dust bowls, will have beautiful artificial turf fields to play on under the Friday night lights.

Renovation plans introduced last week for Cardozo Senior High School call for its Columbia Heights campus to get a “regulation size gymnasium,” meaning that the Clerks’ basketball team might soon be able to play its first home game in decades. (Yes, Cardozo has no real gym. A June 2001 report by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs urged the city to build Cardozo a decent gym so that “home games are, in fact, played at home.”) And now Ballou Senior High School has started the first girls’ lacrosse team ever fielded east of the Anacostia River. The squad made its debut this week at Wilson.

Finally, a group of Wilson students just approached the school’s administration and asked if they could put together a field hockey team. Wilson AD Gore gave them the go-ahead, and says next year the school should field its first field hockey team ever—something kids at D.C.’s private schools and all suburban public schools have taken for granted for generations.

“We’re excited about offering field hockey,” Gore says. “Just don’t ask about where we’re going to practice or play. I have no answer for that.”

Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.

Our Readers Say

One minor correction-the Edmund Burke track team was practicing at Wilson's track, still in use at the Tenley circle campus, where the school is being renovated. The lacrosse team was practicing at the field while Burke was on the track. They repeatedly yelled at the Wilson lacrosse players, not track team members, to get off their track.

Thanks to Dave McKenna for bringing the trials and tribulations of the DCIAA into to the light. I have read more relevant DC high school sports stories from Dave McKenna in one month than I read from Josh Barr and Alan Goldenbach (both of the Washington Post)in the past 5 years. Dave is the best sportswriter in the area.

A similar dynamic has adult Soccer, Kickball and etc. leagues squeezing elementary school level children off their fields. There is a quiet and not-so-quiet public space war going on in NW DC.
While I appreciate this point of view, this was much more of an editorial than a balanced news article. Where are the voices from the other side of the fence? Why is this attributed to McKenna when it was basically Arlotto throughout the entire piece?
yes, love the real look at what is going on in high school sports. so much of a community can be seen through this lens.
For what its worth, a classmate found a dead body at Hamilton while they were warming up for a baseball game, so it isn't all peaches and cream.
As the new Head Softball Coach at Wilson, I can appreciate the points made by McKenna in the piece. The challenge for the Wilson Tigers softball program in trying to return to the status of the perennial favorite to capture the DCIAA title has, indeed, been hindered somewhat by the lack of a regular, full time practice field.

I would hasten to point out, however, that - despite their leasing of their LAX and soccer fields to private schools - UDC (and their Associate Director for Internal Operations, Mike Riley, in particular) has been nothing if not willing to accommodate our program whenever possible, whether through the use of their racquetball courts for indoor practices during the preseason or rain days, or letting me know when fields are available.

We thought we had our practice field situation figured out going into the season, with DCPR's Forest Hills field on Chesapeake Street being an ideal location and facility. Unbeknownst to us, Burke had been using the field as their "home field" for some ten years or so. As a former rec league coach, I have had plenty of experience being told that DCPS takes priority on DCPR fields, but that did not stop us from coming to an agreement with Burke about shared use of the field for this season so that both of our programs could get good use out of it. Unfortunately Burke's AD has continued to express his hopes to have us completely relinquish our use of Forest Hills next year, apparently on the misguided notion of some sort of claim of eminent domain or squatter's rights that entitles them to "their" field. I'm aware of neither any statute nor notion of fair play that entitles a private school to take priority over a publicly-funded DC
I have been the Head Track and Field Coach at Burke for 13 years, and we've been practicing at Wilson a couple days a week for the last several. I've always had a good relationship with the coaches, athletic directors, and athletes at Wilson. We're incredibly grateful to be able to use the track, and sincerely hope that the relationship continues.

Though the sentiments in Mr. McKenna's article are reasonable, this is an incredibly poorly researched article. I'm wondering why the CityPaper would publish an article full of inaccuracies and mistakes. Perhaps Mr. McKenna would like to use the Senator Kyl defense and merely claim the article was not meant to be factual.

Here are a few helpful facts:

- There is no track at UDC. Of course the athletic director at UDC doesn't know of any arrangement for Burke to use the UDC track because they have no track.

- There is a track at Wilson, and we have a great working relationship with their AD, Mitch Gore.

- The Edmund Burke Track team practices at Wilson after the Wilson track team has finished practice. We usually warmup while they are finishing up.

- Most of the hurdles at the track were donated by Burke.

- When runners are on a track and sprinting all out, as you may imagine, it's dangerous when folks who are not paying attention wander onto the track. At that point, as anyone who's ever been on a track team will tell you, you have to yell, "Track!" to get their attention to avoid a collision. It's a matter of safety.

- As Gina Arlotto points out above, the kids on the Burke track team were interacting with Lacrosse players, not the Wilson track team. While I'm skeptical that any Burke athlete said, "Get off our track!," you can be sure I'll be talking to my team about being respectful in their interactions with the lacrosse players.

- Wilson used the Edmund Burke theater for a play this spring.

Though I don't officially represent Burke, I can say that I think we've been good neighbors and continue to work well with the administrators, students, and coaches at Wilson to best utilize the facilities at both our schools and in our neighborhood.

As an educator and coach in the DC area for the past 14 years at Wilson, Maret and Edmund Burke, I can tell you, as any AD of any school can, that field space is at a premium in the District. Schools share fields, schools lease space from one another and agreements are made all the time to accommodate teams throughout the city.
Everyone tries hard to make space and time so that student-athletes at every level, wherever they attend school can have the best opportunities they can.
This one-sided and egregiously poorly-researched column does nothing to further the conversations and compromises that hard-working coaches and athletic directors are having every day.
Maret, Burke, Wilson, St. Alban's... they all work together to help make their teams' experiences better. Some schools have better "ins" with fields than others, it's true. Every school I've worked at has had its fair share of trials and tribulations with trying to find space for a team the students wan but don't try to make this a public versus private school situation, Mr. McKenna because you clearly don't know what you're talking about.

Shame on you for trying to pit these schools against one another.

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