Children learn more than basketball BEYOND SPORTS

August 01, 1991|By Kevin Eck

The lesson plan at Thomas G. Hayes Elementary School this summer is simple: combine jump shots, fast breaks and layups with reading, writing and arithmetic.

In the words of Vernon H. Wolst Jr., director of Project Survival, it's "education through basketball."

Simple, yet effective.

The academic/basketball camp at Thomas Hayes in East Baltimore -- which runs for six weeks through the first week of August -- is the base of the Project Survival program. Children between 7 and 12 are taught that basketball is but one facet of their lives.

In fact, children at this camp need no basketball skills to enroll.

"Very early [in their school lives], players find all their rewards are for what they do on the basketball court, not for what they do in the classroom," Wolst said. "It falls upon the adults to make decisions on what is important for the young men and women they influence."

The camp has an enrollment of 80 children -- approximately 70 boys and 10 girls -- who are divided into three age groups.

The emphasis in the classroom is on reading and math, although the children also take part in arts and crafts and in self-awareness classes that deal with subjects such as black history and civic affairs.

Academic director Lillian Brown said the program doesn't monitor the children's progress after they return to school in the fall, but she said she is pleased with the results she has seen during the summer.

"We are able to give boys and girls who have fallen down in their academics some one-on-one tutoring because the classes are a little smaller," said Brown, who supervises a staff of three teachers. "You really do see the growth of the children in the summer."

Although basketball is the primary physical activity, the children also play lacrosse, soccer and table tennis.

Except for administrative costs, which include a staff of two -- Wolst and an assistant -- Project Survival receives no government funds to finance its programs. The money to pay teachers, basketball officials and scorekeepers, as well as the money for educational supplies, athletic equipment and trophies, comes from corporate sponsors -- Pepsi and the Rouse Co. back the 7-12 program -- and fund-raising activities.

Wolst said he has learned that it is never too early to start building a foundation of learning.

"Project Survival is not a program that was planned," said Wolst, 54. "It more or less developed."

The program was founded during summer 1967, when a lack of organized youth activities in East Baltimore led Wolst, then with Community Action Agency, to take part in forming a 13-and-under boys basketball league. Later, 15-and-under, 18-and-under and girls leagues were formed.

"We were developing in Baltimore a system of developing highly skilled basketball players, whether it was intentional or not," Wolst said.

Coaches from Division I schools began to take notice. Many came to the league games at the University of Baltimore to recruit players. It was at that point that Wolst realized that many of the players were academically unprepared for college, and he started the college prep program in 1974.

Said Wolst: "I remember one interview where a coach asked one of our young men who had graduated from high school that summer what he wanted to know about 'X University.' The question from the young man was: 'What kind of sneakers do you all get?'

"So we had a combination not just of poor grades and poor test scores, but we had a problem of high school graduates being totally unprepared to even ask questions in an intelligent manner. So we decided that we had to take some of our resources out of basketball and put them into education."

Hence, Project Survival's college preparatory program was born.

This program began strictly as a classroom activity for 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders who planned to continue their athletic careers in college. But Wolst found that the only athletes enrolling in the program were ones already doing well in school.

"The guy with all the basketball talent who needed to be there didn't enroll. And if he did enroll, it was because a coach or somebody had to make him enroll," Wolst said. "So we put basketball into that program to entice the students."

Still, Wolst saw room for improvement, so he began the camp for students 7-12 as a supplement to the college preparatory program in 1979.

"In dealing with high school students in the college-prep program, it was often too late to get a kid from flunking the [Scholastic Aptitude Test] to passing," he said. "We also found that much of what student-athletes should have learned, they should have learned back in elementary or junior high school."

Many of the youngsters coming through the program have gone on to success on and off the court. Each year, Project Survival presents a Role Model award to a graduate of the program who is contributing to the community.

Duane Ferrell (Calvert Hall, Georgia Tech, Atlanta Hawks) won the award this year, but Wolst would rather talk to the children about other Role Model award winners such as Rick Moreland (1990), public relations director of the Washington Bullets, or Dave Montgomery (1989), Public Works bureau chief.

"The first time I saw Muggsy Bogues [Dunbar, Wake Forest, Washington Bullets, Charlotte Hornets] was in [Thomas Hayes'] gym when he was about 11 or 12, but I don't like to talk to the kids about the pros, because so few of them are going to reach that point," Wolst said.

So while the next Duane Ferrell or Muggsy Bogues may or may not be sitting in a classroom at Thomas Hayes this summer, Wolst said that Project Survival will be the difference between "a fair shot and an empty future" for many of those children.

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