This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As a recently created high school preparing to graduate its first senior class, the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in Northeast Philadelphia is just beginning to establish a sporting tradition.
If the school is lucky, it will someday have a legacy to equal that of its principal, Jessica Brown.
A three-time collegiate All-American in lacrosse and a standout field hockey player, Brown was inducted into Kenyon College’s athletic Hall of Fame in September.
“Jessica was certainly one of Kenyon’s most prolific field-sport athletes during her career, establishing long-standing records in both field hockey and lacrosse,” said Amy Williams, assistant athletics director for the college, located in Gambier, Ohio.
“That her stats still rank among Kenyon’s best today indicates the impact that she had on women’s athletics at Kenyon,” she said.
A Philadelphia native, Brown wants her students at Rush to learn the same lessons she did while competing at Kenyon and, before that, Germantown Friends School (GFS). So, for the past three years, she’s been working hard to make sure that her students have some of the same athletic opportunities that helped shape her.
“I think [sports] are just such a big part of the high school experience,” said Brown.
“School spirit, confidence-building, a sense of excitement – all of that is important to me.”
Creating a team spirit
Two weeks before the start of the new school year, the fruit of Brown’s labor was on display in Rush’s gleaming gymnasium.
Over two dozen girls were stretching and scrimmaging, hoping to earn a spot on the school’s first varsity volleyball team.
Rising senior Nicole Logue played on Rush’s junior varsity volleyball team last year and is poised to be a team captain this year. She laughed about how far the team has come in just two years.
“The first practice, it was just three girls running in the hallway,” said Logue.
“We didn’t even have any balls.”
Nevertheless, the girls quickly became a tight-knit group, said Logue’s likely co-captain, Mikeira Cole.
“They’re like my sisters,” said Cole.
That’s exactly the kind of camaraderie that their principal says made her own playing days so special.
“I was very close to my teammates,” said Brown, who captained both the lacrosse and field hockey teams at Kenyon during her senior year.
“I loved the whole idea of working together, galvanizing the team, getting everybody ready for the games.”
Finding a niche
Long before she was a college All-American, though, Brown was a little sister tagging along with her big brother to neighborhood street hockey games in Mount Airy.
“I was the girl who wanted to play, so they would just stick me in goal,” laughed Brown.
Brown attended Masterman for fifth and sixth grades then moved on to GFS.
Her first year at GFS, she signed up to play field hockey as a goalie.
“I looked at the situation, saw the competition, and said, ‘I’m not going to be as good as them my first year. I’ll be a goalie,’” explained Brown.
But she truly found her niche when she joined the lacrosse team as an attack wing. There, Brown could use her natural athletic ability – and finally try to score herself.
Her coach at Germantown Friends, Della Micah, remembers Brown well.
“What quickly stood out was her incredible work ethic,” said Micah.
“When she came to practice, she was all business.”
The lacrosse teams Brown played on at GFS were exceptional. In 1983, her junior year, they lost only two games.
Before Brown’s senior year, Micah took the team on a week-long tour of her native Britain.
“The competition was really strong, and just seeing the English countryside was an amazing experience,” said Brown.
“We ended up coming back and having an undefeated year.”
By the time she got to Kenyon, Brown was ready to step right in and start breaking records. A four-year starter, she set the school’s single season scoring mark as a senior, notching 50 goals.
“After racking up 50 goals and eight assists in the 1988 season,” Williams remembers, “Brown was named the NCAC Player of the Year.”
Building a school community
Now a fit 45-year-old, Brown said she hasn’t picked up a lacrosse stick in 20 years, preferring instead to take a run and do power yoga five times a week.
Looking back, Brown says her high school athletic exploits made her entire educational experience better.
“I didn’t look forward to every single class, but I always looked forward at the end of the day to being with teammates and the physical activity,” she said.
So far, Brown has succeeded in bringing similar opportunities to Rush.
Previously a middle school, Rush was closed in 2006, renovated to the tune of $25 million, and reopened in 2008 as a small, special admission high school with an arts focus.
Brown was hired as the school’s first principal. She threw herself into the job with her characteristic passion.
This year, the 531-student school will field six varsity or junior varsity teams, including boys’ and girls’ basketball, softball, baseball, and girls’ soccer.
And Brown is not done. One of her major goals this year is to raise independent funds to create a weight room for Rush.
“She’s just so supportive compared to other principals,” said Todd Corabi, a 14-year District veteran who serves as the school’s athletic director and coaches the girls’ soccer team.
“She really wants the school to be a community, and everybody responds.”