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Getting with the program

Charter schools are rushing the nets at Philadelphia's renowned Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center.

Photo: Benjamin Herold

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

On paper, Philadelphia is only 165 miles from Bristol, Connecticut.

But when Tyanna Walker’s family moved from Bristol to Southwest Philly in 2007, it felt like she was light years away from her old home, especially when she started 5th grade at Morton Elementary School.

“It was just a totally different environment,” Tyanna says now. “Everything was less organized, and I was scared of the people.”

It was against this backdrop that she made her first visit to the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center’s new location in East Falls.

Opened in 2006, the $12.5 million Ashe Center boasts 16 tennis courts, state-of-the-art classroom space, a library, and a computer lab.

“My first time coming here, I was just amazed,” Tyanna says. “I never thought a place could be so organized and clean in Philly.”

A year later, the lively 13-year-old is thrilled that she still gets to go to the Ashe Center once a week.

She is also thrilled that her family found a new school for her that makes those weekly trips possible through an extracurricular program that would probably never have been available to her at a traditional public school.

Tyanna now attends Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, where she is a beneficiary of the Ashe Center’s upgraded programming for – and outreach to – charter school students.

“Due to the accountability system and budget and scheduling constraints, it’s hard to get [traditional public] school groups here during school hours,” explains Kenny Holdsman, a veteran of Philadelphia’s education reform community who has been president of the Ashe Center for the past 18 months.

“With charters, there is more latitude in the curriculum and in how they spend their time and money, and [there also seems to be] a greater appreciation for educating the whole child.”

Currently, the Ashe Center serves about 800 charter students overall, including six charter schools through their center-based programming.

Full package of activities

But it is Tyanna and her classmates at Richard Allen, a middle school, who are receiving the fullest extent of what the Ashe Center has to offer.

Tennis teaching pro John Greene, who taught English and ESOL in the District for 16 years, has been working with the group from Richard Allen to develop the Ashe Center’s “model charter school initiative.”

One or two vanloads of Richard Allen students come to the Ashe Center each Wednesday afternoon, when the school closes for staff meetings and professional development.

Arriving at the center, the students receive classroom instruction from staff and are given time to do homework and use the computer lab. Then, they receive up to 90 minutes of on-court tennis instruction from the Ashe Center’s teaching pros. Infused throughout their time at the Ashe Center are “life-skills” lessons.

“They’re not just having kids play around; they are teaching them the fundamentals and philosophy of tennis. There is a strong academic push also,” says Richard Allen CEO Lawrence Jones, whose daughter has been taking lessons at Ashe since she was four.

“Not everyone can be LeBron James or Donovan McNabb,” Jones continues. “We want to expose kids to different sports and in the process make them more marketable for postsecondary scholarships.”

The Ashe Center hopes to build on its work with Richard Allen, expand its programming to other school groups, and possibly help initiate a competitive five-team middle school tennis league for the charters they are currently serving.

“We’re targeting middle schools so that when the kids get to high school, they can compete with other students,” says Greene.

High school challenges

The high school teams in the city could certainly use the help.

No Public League team has ever made it past the first round of the PIAA playoffs, says District tennis chairperson Steve Kolman.

In 2011, there will be 20 boys’ teams and 13 girls’ teams. Central, Girls High, and Masterman are perennial powerhouses.

“But I can [only] think of four schools that have tennis courts on site. The rest have to use public tennis courts not near their school,” says Kolman.

“I think we have two teams with players who take year-round lessons. But on every team in [suburban] District 1, the entire team, down to the 20th player, is taking lessons constantly.”

Given schools’ need for coaching and facilities, one might think that the Ashe Center would be a valuable resource for the District’s tennis program.

But while Ashe does host Public League tennis matches and playoffs, and while Kolman says he encourages as many city players as possible to go to Ashe for lessons, the reality is that the center is more accessible to charters than to traditional public schools.

“When I book court time, I have to use odd times, because the charters are willing to pay,” says Kolman, referring to the District’s difficulty getting access to and paying for prime afternoon and evening court times. “That’s the way the business side of tennis in this area works. Indoor court time is at a premium.”

Realizing the center’s goal of becoming a “premier youth development and youth empowerment organization” while still meeting costs is an ongoing challenge, says Holdsman.

“When I got here, we were hemorrhaging, facing a $700,000 annual deficit. We were underutilizing the center and oversubsidizing those we were serving. Our business model was broken,” he explains.

So while the center is expanding its programming and thinking more broadly about how to best utilize its facilities, Ashe no longer serves school groups for free. It typically costs about $125 for 20 students to participate with three coaches for an hour of on-court instruction and 30 minutes of classroom time.

Holdsman says the Ashe Center would love to serve more traditional public school groups, but it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

For the time being, anyway, the reality is that charter school students like Tyanna Walker will have the most ready school-day access to the center.

“Charters are knocking at the door to participate,” says Holdsman. “We want to help.”

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