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Harlem Lacrosse program helps youth elevate their academic game

Tutors, counselors and coaches prepare students for college


Harlem is a mecca of basketball and the epicenter of black culture. Lacrosse is a sport that is especially popular on the East Coast but is often not associated with people of color.

Harlem Lacrosse (HL), a nonprofit designed to help at-risk youth get into college, is changing that. It uses lacrosse to help youth in a racially and socio-economically shifting neighborhood to build both life and academic skills. Its mission: “to empower the children who are most at risk for academic decline and dropout to rise above their challenges and reach their full potential.”

Recently, the program took 40 students to one of the top lacrosse tournaments in Baltimore and came away with its first winning record at a national tournament. Owen Van Arsdale, Harlem Lacrosse’s senior program director for Frederick Douglass Academy, said the win was a result of the year-round dedication of the players.

“Not that we care about wins and losses at summer tournaments, but if anything, it’s an indication of growth and is certainly validating for the kids who pour in their blood, sweat and tears to make it all happen,” said Van Arsdale.

According to the latest 2015-16 NCAA Sports Sponsorship data, black lacrosse players make up just 3 percent of the total number of lacrosse players in college. Diversity on the lacrosse fields has grown over the years since the days of Jim Brown, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

That includes players like Isaiah Davis-Allen, who was an All-American midfielder for NCAA Division I champion University of Maryland.

While Harlem Lacrosse is contributing to that growth, the increasing number of black and brown players in the sport is a bonus, not the goal, for Harlem Lacrosse.

The organization’s primary goal is to encourage middle school and high school students to shine athletically and academically. According to the organization’s website, Harlem Lacrosse provides school-based, full-day, year-round support for the students by placing a staff member at the school sites for each of their programs.

“We are not a lacrosse program. We are an intervention program,” said Joel Censer, Harlem Lacrosse’s director of advancement. “We use lacrosse as the carrot to reach the students where they are and get them motivated and excited about school.”

The nonprofit was founded in 2007 by Simon Cataldo at the Frederick Douglass Academy I in the Sugar Hill/Hamilton Heights district of Harlem. Around that time, the demographics of this Central Harlem neighborhood had already begun to shift in a way that continues today. The black population, which included people from the Caribbean and Africa, was at 62 percent and on the decline. Meanwhile, the number of non-Hispanic whites was growing. The median household income was just over $26,000, which was just above the U.S. poverty line for a four-person household but well below the median for other parts of New York City.

Schools in the neighborhood varied in performance. Graduation rates at high schools ranged from 60 percent to 74 percent, and unemployment rates were high.

So why lacrosse? The organization’s website says the sport is unique in its emphasis on elite college competition. The teamwork culture, perseverance, hard work and confidence-building from the sport can translate directly into the classroom and into the students’ personal lives.

Cataldo and his team started with just 11 students and 10 lacrosse sticks in 2008. Today, the program works with over 450 boys and girls.

Coach Dom Starsia, who played and coached at Brown University and was a longtime coach at the University of Virginia, gives instructions to players at practice this summer.

Photo by Paul Holston

Since 2012, the program has expanded beyond New York to different cities, including Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia. The vast majority of participants, 92 percent, identify as African-American, Hispanic or multiracial.

Some of the HL students view the hours of lacrosse practice, studying and mentoring as an investment in their future. When Dyjae Pearson was in seventh grade, his middle school in Harlem didn’t have a basketball program. He was convinced by his friends to play the sport that he had never heard of. Now 17 and in high school, Pearson’s skills have improved and he takes the sport seriously.

“In high school, I started to fall into the wrong crowd. A lot of people had faith in me to do better,” said Pearson. “My friends and family knew that it was good for me to play lacrosse.”

Pearson’s hard work and dedication earned him an opportunity to attend and play lacrosse for Blair Academy, a private boarding school in Blairstown, New Jersey. As an African-American lacrosse player, he hopes to inspire others to pick up a stick.

“I hope what I’m doing now inspires those who look up to me. Me breaking that barrier to play in the sport at any division will hopefully persuade them to do better than me or do better than I did,” said Pearson.

Souleymane Ballo, 17, was raised in Harlem and is the youngest of seven children. His parents moved from the Ivory Coast to the United States in the 1980s. Ballo originally wanted to become a football player, and then one of his coaches told him about lacrosse.

“The coach told me that if I played the sport, it was guaranteed to change my life. And it did,” said Ballo.

Ballo never imagined he’d play lacrosse, and especially not in Harlem. Now, he wants to play the sport in college after he graduates from high school. He also dreams of working in business.

“It’s amazing to play in Harlem,” said Ballo. “In terms of a goal, I’d love to play college lacrosse and would like to be in the business world, like working downtown on Wall Street or Goldman Sachs.”

The academic benefits of the program are widely touted. According to the organization’s own metrics, Harlem Lacrosse helped at least 90 percent of its students pass their core classes in English, math, science and social studies during the 2015-16 school year. Most HL players graduate from high school. Only 2.5 percent have dropped out, a number that is far below the average rate for black and brown students in New York City. But graduation is only part of what HL considers success.

It works to help students attend college, so it provides an admission counseling program. Participating students get free tutoring, SSAT and SAT preparation, essay counseling and school visits during the application process. The organization says it has helped almost 50 students earn academic scholarships to independent schools and colleges.

HL alumni have attended or will attend Bates College, Colby College, Connecticut College, Gettysburg College, Haverford College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Stony Brook College, Tufts University, University of Virginia, and U.S. Military Academy West Point.

Tyler Bryan, 17, from Manhattan, said the best aspect is not the sports, but the academic help they give to him and his teammates. Bryan aspires to one day become a lawyer.

“They make sure that our grades are good in order to play. If we are not good, they get tutors to help us,” said Bryan, who has been in the program for five years. “I really appreciate it because before lacrosse, I wasn’t the best student. When they entered my life, I realized I had to give the best I could give to be able to go to college.”

These goals align with those of Joel Censer, Harlem Lacrosse’s director of advancement. He wants the program to support students in accomplishing their goals in and out of the classroom.

“We get ingrained in their everyday lives to continue to reach forward athletically, academically and everything else. I think sport is such a primer for so many other parts of life,” said Censer. “It’s really rewarding to see kids inspired by the sport.”

Paul Holston journalism major from Summerville, SC. He attends Howard University and served as 2016-17 editor-in-chief of The Hilltop.