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.”
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