This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
At Baldi Middle School, where the sports program is a districtwide model for excellence, Zachary Dorsonne’s transformation from reluctant student to standout peer is a surprisingly typical tale.
Dorsonne, an 8th grader at the Northeast Philadelphia school, joined its football team in the fall. Within a few months, teachers and coaches noticed substantial improvements in his behavior.
Teachers say he’s more focused in class and less disruptive in the hallways, carrying himself with the measured determination one expects of a well-coached lineman. With a powerful build and an authoritative tone, he looks and acts much older than the petulant teenager teachers couldn’t seem to reach just a year ago.
And when asked where his priorities lie between school and sports, Dorsonne doesn’t equivocate.
"I’m going to focus on my schoolwork and see if I can maintain my grades first, and then see where we can go from there," he says.
Dorsonne’s turnaround highlights the value of school athletics in keeping students active and engaged after school, while also steering them away from trouble and offering an incentive for academic achievement.
But a drastic reduction in District funding of middle school athletics this year has put many programs at risk. During the middle years, when many students become disengaged, these kinds of cutbacks could have a profound impact on achievement.
The cuts to middle school sports are sweeping. The District slashed more than 70 percent of the funds previously allocated, reducing the annual budget from $1.4 million to just $400,000.
Office of Athletics Executive Director Robert Coleman responded by reducing the number of interscholastic middle school sports from 14 to just three, leaving football, girls’ field hockey, and girls’ lacrosse as the only sports left on the middle school docket. The 11 other sports were transformed into intramurals.
Elsewhere, Coleman also consolidated, scrapping individual school teams in favor of regional squads. The Baldi field hockey team, for example, took in students from nearby Greenberg School this year when Greenberg lost its program.
Baldi itself, a high-achieving school with a record of athletic success, escaped the budget cuts relatively unscathed.
The school’s trophy case, a collection that includes 20 city championships over the past three years, shimmers with years of accomplishment. Baldi’s rate of participation is even more impressive, with approximately one-third of the 1,300 students playing at least one sport.
The Philadelphia Eagles recently donated a new gym to Baldi to ensure that the campus would have enough resources.
But at schools with less robust sports programs, significant modifications could cause greater disruption.
Spreading it around
To mitigate the damage from cuts, Coleman decided to spread his resources wide and thin, saving as many activities as possible instead of concentrating what funds he had on a few core sports.
The move away from interscholastic sports and towards intramurals signaled a new focus on skills acquisition and away from competition. More important, the District eased its salary burden by turning soccer, track, softball, baseball, tennis, golf, boys’ lacrosse, and boys’ and girls’ basketball and volleyball into intramurals.
Each intramural sport runs between 10 and 25 hours a season as opposed to the 66.5 hours allotted for interscholastic sports. As a result, intramural coaches earn just 15 to 37 percent of what they would have earned as interscholastic coaches.
Coleman makes it clear he wants students to have as many choices as possible, even if that means cutting employee salaries.
"We will focus on [cutting] salary if we have to, but we will make sure the opportunity [for sports] is still there," Coleman says.
"We’re not saying we’re cutting programs; we’re modifying programs. We’re adjusting what we did in the past, and we’re doing it from a refined point of view."
Those coaches in downgraded sports now must face a tough decision – accept reduced pay and a shortened season or abandon the program altogether.
Trying to recoup his losses, Coleman launched outside appeals for support. He and Director of Programs and Activities Rick Howard recently organized an inaugural District softball game to raise money for middle school sports.
The game, which pitted District central office staff against the Philadelphia Phillies’ ball girls, solicited funds through corporate sponsorship. Though the early efforts raised little cash – less than $1,000 – Coleman hopes the seed money will inspire more contributions.
That money can’t come soon enough for Baldi coaches Craig Doney and Jeff Brown.
Brown heads Baldi’s girls’ field hockey squad and runs a before-school fitness club, which a regular cast of 60 students attends before dawn. Doney coaches both the football and baseball teams. The latter recently racked up 104 consecutive wins.
Doney and Brown, with four decades of experience between them, present a compelling case for middle school athletics.
"We’re not trying to make Division I or II athletes" out of the students, Brown explains.
"We’re trying to get them exposed to being active, to being part of a school community. Of course, the academic side is really important, but there’s more to life than that."
Doney agrees. Sports "keeps children that are in crisis … in this community with us," he says.
Doney says he wonders what will happen to those students if they don’t have structured sports to fill their afternoons and worries that a reduction in pay will erode the coaching ranks.
"Dedicated [coaches], they’re going to continue to do it. But only for so long," he warns.
At Baldi, the prospect of losing coaches doesn’t appear imminent. Many have said that the lost salary wouldn’t affect their decision to stay on.
"It’s like Central Bucks West out here," Doney says, comparing Baldi to the suburban sports stronghold.
But at other schools where support systems aren’t as strong, athletic opportunities will likely take a hit, and that’s a prospect that concerns Coleman.
"We’re turning this huge gigantic ship in the ocean and if we turn it too fast, and if we drop the sports, the intramural and extramural opportunities … kids will get washed out and get hurt," he says.
Howard worries that the absence of enrichment activities like sports and music, coupled with an increase in rigorous standardized testing, will alienate students from the school community.
Sports "is what gets kids to come to school, what teaches kids lifetime fitness," he says.
For now, Howard and Coleman have done their best with the shoestring budget allotted. In some form they’ve managed to save all the middle school sports – no small accomplishment.
Intramurals, however, aren’t a wholesale replacement for interscholastic athletics. Though they encourage wider participation, they also offer less stability, uniformity, and structure when compared to an interscholastic model.
In Zachary Dorsonne’s case, one wonders whether an intramural could have inspired the same sense of pride, community, and accomplishment that he has discovered on Baldi’s football team.
Coach Brown thinks students like Dorsonne could slip through the cracks in a school system that lacks the far-reaching supports provided by interscholastic sports.
"You’re giving them the opportunity to be part of a team, to learn all the benefits of competition," Brown says.
"Ask yourself: What would an 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old do with their time from 3:15 to 5:30 at night if they weren’t exposed to an opportunity like this?"