NEW YORK—Nikeiris Portalatin came from the Dominican Republic five years ago. She started to attended the International Community High School in the Bronx, a school for children who have been in the United States for less than four years. But her school days were troubled.
“I had problems in my house,” she said. It went so far that she began to suffer from self-abuse.
Portalatin is now 18, on her way to a community college, and brimming with happiness. Her world changed.
Things turned around in 2012 when Portalatin joined the SSAL—the Small Schools Athletic League—a grass-roots initiative organizing sport teams and competitions among high schools with less than 600 students. The league serves about 1,700 students.
“When I play sports it feels like I’m on the top of the world. You cannot imagine. It’s fantastic,” said Portalatin, a proud captain of the softball and volleyball teams at her school. Sports were her rescue, giving her respite from her problems. “When I play sports, I forget everything,” she said. “I feel like I love everything I see.”
David Garcia-Rosen, a veteran history teacher, founded the SSAL in 2011 as an opportunity for high schools that were unable to get sports funding from the official Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL).
Looking at Education Department data, he noticed that schools with higher-income populations were getting more funding than low-income schools. While the five wealthiest districts have less than 1 percent of students at schools with no PSAL sports team, five of the poorest school districts have about 20 percent of students in such schools.
Even if a school gets funding for sports several factors limit who can participate. There are academic and disciplinary requirements. Only students up to the age of 18 can participate. That’s especially problematic for international high schools, where 20 to 40 percent of students are overage.
Garcia-Rosen decided to run the league more as an intervention program. There are still requirements, but no age restrictions and the rules are more flexible, giving struggling students a chance to pick themselves up. And it seems the plan works—students who participate have better attendance and grades, Garcia-Rosen said.
“Sports keep me in the school and help me to work hard,” Portalatin said. “Sports make me responsible.”
The Last Match
On June 13, during the sunny intermission between the morning rain and the evening thunderstorm, SSAL hosted its last match of the season on a baseball diamond in Saint Mary’s Park in the Bronx.
The atmosphere was cheerful, but a certain anxiety was smoldering underneath. The mayor’s executive budget didn’t pick up $1.25 million in funding necessary to keep the league alive, raising worries that the match may be the last.
Garcia-Rosen and Council member Andy King called on the city to include the funding in the final budget at a press conference prior to the game.
“These students qualify to go to public schools, they qualify to get the education, they qualify to sit in the classrooms and learn,” King said. “Then why can’t they participate in after-school sports and programs?”
Garcia-Rosen has been trying to talk with the city’s Education Department (DOE) since 2012, but up until recently, there was no progress.
This year he met with Schools Deputy Chancellor of Operations Kathleen Grimm, who offered him a job at PSAL and a merging of the two leagues. But she didn’t provide any details on whether the league’s unique nature would be preserved.
Only lower level officials came to the next meeting, giving Garcia-Rosen doubts what the DOE’s intentions were.
“What was important to me, was the mission and vision of continuing what we’ve done,” he said. “Making sure that English language learners can still play, that over-aged, under-credited kids could play. And I wasn’t able to get those assurances.”
Glimmer of Hope
In response to an Epoch Times inquiry, DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the department is working on creating a new league within PSAL “which will expand opportunity for students in small schools, meet the federal Title IX mandate to equally serve high school girls, and ensure implementation of our strict safety standards.”
“We will continue to discuss this with SSAL and are hopeful that with the league expansion, we’ll reach even more students in more schools across city,” Kaye stated in an email.
That sets a bit more optimist note for Garcia-Rosen. “I am happy to hear that the DOE has heard our pleas and is now in agreement that a new high school sports league is needed to expand sports opportunities to our smaller high schools,” he responded in an email.
He noted SSAL already has safety standards in line with the DOE and goes even beyond the federal mandates, providing clinics for its girl players.
“We are hopeful they will now throw their support behind our efforts to have the mayor include the SSAL in the fiscal year 2015 budget,” he stated.
King hoped the students will not only have the end of the season to celebrate, but also the opportunity to look forward to the next one.
Certainly, seeing the players giving their all, the transformative power was almost palatable. Portalatin said sports are making her strong.
“That’s the person I am now,” she said.