For these Philly black and Latino teens, the future lies in squash

The racket sport is not only keeping them active but also has them on track to attend the best colleges in the U.S.

When it comes to academics and sports in Philadelphia, the statistics are sobering. Philadelphia is America’s poorest big city, with 1 in 3 kids living in poverty. Philadelphia public and charter schools do not offer organized sports for K-8 students, and the dropout rate for students in grades nine through 12 is a shocking 60 percent. Not shockingly, 40 percent of kids in the city are overweight or obese, 60 percent of kids have no organized physical activity, and heart disease is the leading cause of death for all African-Americans. However, a free nonprofit mentoring program called SquashSmarts has been working to challenge and change those statistics since 2001 by introducing black and Latino preteens to squash.

SquashSmarts focuses on sixth- to eighth-graders in North and West Philadelphia and requires them to make a six- to eight-year commitment, guiding them through middle and high school in preparation for college. The program partners with four middle schools in the city: George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, Esperanza Academy Charter School, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary and Overbrook Educational Center.

By boosting their academics and athletic involvement, the program helps students to get into boarding schools and private colleges with intensive three-days-per-week academic and athletic instruction. While squash has long been associated primarily with majority-white private clubs, in Philadelphia the sport has become an outlet for black and Latino teens to stay active and be accepted to some of the best schools in the country, including Lincoln University, Temple University and Morehouse College.

A quote by baseball legend Babe Ruth sits in a window at the SquashSmarts facility in North Philadelphia. Founded in 2001, SquashSmarts is a free after-school program for Philadelphia’s public school students. As children in Philadelphia are disproportionately likely to be overweight as well as not complete high school, the intensive academic and athletic mentoring program intends to keep kids “in school, in shape, and on track for graduation.”

Jaydin Robinson, 13, brushes his teeth at his family’s home in North Philadelphia on May 2. Because Jaydin’s mother works four jobs, he is often responsible for getting himself ready for school in the morning.

Melissa Gray, 16, tries not to fall asleep as she takes the subway to high school on April 23. Though Melissa lives in West Philadelphia, she was intelligent enough to test into George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, a magnet school in North Philadelphia. To get to school, Melissa must take a bus and two subways, a journey that can take as long as 1½ hours to complete.

Jaydin Robinson exits the subway station closest to his middle school, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, on May 2. Bethune Elementary is a Philadelphia public school and, as Jaydin is about to graduate from the eighth grade, he would typically be continuing on to a public high school. However, with help from SquashSmarts, Jaydin will instead be attending the Philadelphia Military Academy, a school that he and his mother believe will afford him more opportunity.

Melissa Gray takes books from her locker at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philadelphia on April 23. Melissa is nearing the end of her junior year of school with a 4.2 GPA. She has been attending SquashSmarts for six years.

Melissa Gray works on an assignment from her Chinese class in a study period on April 23. Because SquashSmarts helped her to apply and test into a charter school, Melissa has more diverse and intensive class options than she would receive at a Philadelphia public school. While taking coding classes at Carver, Melissa discovered a love of computer science and hopes to study the subject in college. Mentors at SquashSmarts believe that Melissa has a shot at getting into an Ivy League university next year.

Sneakers and books are stored side by side at the SquashSmarts facility in North Philadelphia on May 2. At SquashSmarts, both athletic and academic items are made available for student use, including clothing, equipment, reading materials and desktop computers. In each after-school session, students receive one hour of academic mentorship, including homework help, studying tips and assistance with private high school and college applications, plus one hour of athletic training (squash).

Dewon Flythe (right), a seventh-year graduate of SquashSmarts and a current coach and mentor with the program, joins students at a tournament at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on March 10. The tournament, played with two other urban squash organizations, is an opportunity for SquashSmarts students to travel outside of the city as well as boost their athletic performance. Although SquashSmarts was projected to win, the team nearly lost to Baltimore’s Squash Wise and came in second place.

A Temple University student (left) who is volunteering his time at SquashSmarts helps a high school student see what kind of financial aid package he was offered from West Chester University on March 29. West Chester is one of several colleges to accept him and give him a scholarship.

Ranson Gayman (left) stretches before an hourlong practice with squash trainers at the Lenfest Center in North Philadelphia on April 8. Ranson is going into the 10th grade and has been with the program for four years.

Squash racquets and a pair of safety glasses lie on the ground at the Franklin & Marshall College squash courts March 10. SquashSmarts was one of three urban squash programs to compete in the tournament. Besides athletic coaching and academic support, SquashSmarts provides each of its players with the equipment necessary to compete.

Jalil Weaver takes a moment to breathe between matches on April 8. Students will often spend the full hour of the athletic portion of the program playing scrimmages against one another while receiving coaching and encouragement from mentors. Jalil is going into the 10th grade and has been with the program for two years.

SquashSmarts students Jared Williams (left) and Melissa Gray run laps on March 29 as they participate in a routine test to determine how their athletic performance is progressing as a result of the program.

Jaydin Robinson, 13, practices squash at the Lenfest Center in North Philadelphia on March 10. Jaydin has been attending SquashSmarts for three years and is currently ranked as the program’s best middle school player.

Niyanna Fields warms up at a tri-city tournament held at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on March 10. Niyanna is in eighth grade and has been with SquashSmarts since she was in fifth grade. SquashSmarts requires every student to make a six- to eight-year commitment to the program.

Johnathan Hernandez pauses at the entrance to SquashSmarts, which displays the program’s motto: “In school, in shape, on track for graduation.” Johnathan is going into the ninth grade and has been with the program for one year.

SquashSmarts students and coaches end the routine “closing circle” with a huddle. Each day, the program features both an opening and closing circle so that students can be informed of the day’s plans, ask questions and reflect upon the day’s lessons.