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Are girls’ sports being shortchanged in Philly schools?

A legendary coach questions Title IX compliance.

A kid shown playing in a gym in Philadelphia.
Emma Lee (NewsWorks/WHYY, file)

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

At the first meeting of the new Philadelphia Board of Education, Dr. Lurline Jones was one of 41 names on the speaker’s list. She introduced herself as the “champion of girls’ sports,” referring to her 42 years in the District, during which she earned a 647-202 record as a basketball coach, primarily at University City High School.

More than a decade after her retirement, she has continued her advocacy.

During her three-minute allotted speaking time, Jones outlined a variety of problems with Title IX – the federal provision requiring equity in boys’ and girls’ sports – that have persisted in the District and in Philadelphia over the years.

In 1979, just seven years after Title IX passed, Jones filed a lawsuit against the District because the city did not have a title game for girls’ basketball. To avoid a court mandate, the powers-that-be at the time eliminated the boys’ championship game (the Catholic League vs. the Public League) rather than add a girls’ game.

Jones acknowledged the progress that the District has made since then, but voiced extreme frustration with disparities that, she said, still exist.

Jones gathered anecdotes at a seminar she led, along with the Women’s Law Project, to celebrate this year’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day on Feb. 26. The seminar was hosted at Temple University and involved students from schools including Murrell Dobbins Career & Technical School, Edison High, Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet, and George Washington High.

The athletes’ concerns included differences in equipment quality, facility safety, the lack of trainers at girls’ competitions, and disproportionate levels of sponsorship.

The first two concerns are the District’s responsibility, and the District maintains that they are complying with Title IX.

“Whether we upgrade a facility, whether we grant a request for equipment, we also make sure we provide equal opportunities to both genders,” said District executive director of athletics James Lynch in an interview.

Once the allotted funds reach the schools, it is out of the District’s control, he said.

“I can’t speak for the schools themselves,” said Lynch, “but we do communicate with them, and provide training and development to ensure they are maintaining their compliance [with Title IX].”

Nyeelah Rousseau, who graduated from Martha Washington Elementary and Mastery Charter High School-Shoemaker Campus, described an imbalance at the schools she attended, District and charter.

The difference became more apparent “when it was time to travel [and] school buses and scheduling was limited,” she said in an interview. “Girls have no access to the buses.”

Rousseau cited her 14 years of basketball experience in the District and her current job coaching at Mastery Charter- Harrity Campus. “Boys have more exposure, college recruits, more practice time, and better jerseys. They travel farther and have better gear, even though girls have a better record.”

Part of the financial imbalance between boys’ and girls’ teams stems from unequal fundraising efforts, Jones said.

“Boys’ teams get new gear and equipment like sneakers, shooting shirts, etc., from outside sponsors. Girls are not included or afforded new gear from the sponsors,” Jones told the Board of Education.

Rousseau agreed, saying that Mastery had a sponsor for only the boys’ team.

When asked about the potential inequities from fundraising, Lynch defended the schools’ rights to accept money.

If money is donated specifically for boys’ uniforms, “it would be unhelpful not to accept that donation, but we can tell the school to find room in the budget or do some fundraising to get the girls new uniforms as well,” Lynch said.

“Funding is centrally allocated for all sports [girls’ and boys’] in The School District of Philadelphia,” District spokesman Lee Whack said in an email. “We ensure all salaries, fees, and other expenses are the same for both genders, and opportunities for female sports are offered in accordance with Title IX.”

The athletic budget last year was over $8.2 million. The money covered “coaches’ stipends, athletic directors’ stipends, officials, transportation costs, facility rentals, awards and championships, our middle school program,” said Lynch.

Transportation is a larger issue for some schools. At the board meeting, Jones cited the discontinuation of Lankenau High School’s activity bus.

Because the location of the school in the woods of Roxborough isolates it from public transportation, the District hired five buses to run between the school and various drop-off points in the city. There used to be an additional bus that dropped athletes off at Martin Luther King High School so students could use the facilities to practice. Lankenau doesn’t have its own athletic facilities.

“Somewhere along the line,” Jones said, “the bus stopped.”

In order to make it to practice, the football team now boards one of the five District buses that has a drop-off point two blocks from King. The team and their equipment fill the bus during football season, leaving no room for members of girls’ teams.

According to Jones, female students have quit sports due to the inconvenience and lack of support.

“We are working to reinstate the activity bus,” Lynch reported, adding that they hoped to have it running next year.

Though Lynch was aware of the discontinuation of the activity bus at Lankenau, he insisted he was unaware of any dissatisfaction with athletics within the District.

“The first I heard of this was when you reached out,” he said, “I hadn’t received any formal complaints from [Jones] or principals. It’s a concern we are addressing immediately.”

Whack said: “Philadelphia has a rich history in student athletics. We take equity in our athletics very seriously. We want kids to have opportunities. This is something we’ve been focused on, and we continue to be focused on.”

Officials at Lankenau could not be reached for comment.

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