Over the line in York

High schools: Quietly and almost overnight, the Pennsylvania city's Crispus Attucks school became a national basketball power. But a foul was called.

High Schools

September 07, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. -- They took on some of the biggest names in the fiercely competitive world of prep school basketball, and came out on top. They earned college scholarships, some to such big-time programs as Georgia and Nevada-Las Vegas.

And even as the Crispus Attucks Eagles collected their championship rings, the school caught the eye of one of the country's best young players.

All in the team's first season -- which, it turns out, will almost certainly be its last as a national force.

You might think that an inaugural season with so much success would have been a hit in this southern Pennsylvania city, but few in York knew of the team's winning ways.

And when word trickled out that the team was almost entirely composed of out-of-state players -- including two from Baltimore's Dunbar High hoops dynasty -- critics complained that the taxpayer-supported charter school had strayed from its mission of helping hometown dropouts find direction.

"In essence, it turned into a basketball factory," said Jeffrey Kirkland, president of York's school board. "These guys were ringers."

Hammered by criticism, officials at the year-old Crispus Attucks YouthBuild Charter School decided to shelve their national-class basketball program. The school's board of directors even voted to pay the York school system about $38,000 -- compensation for the cost to educate the out-of-state players.

When the program resumes play in the 2001-2002 school year, it will be made up of local players playing local schools.

"We made some mistakes, sure, and I accept that blame because I run the shop," said Robert Simpson, longtime director of the Crispus Attucks Association of York, Pa., the charter school's parent corporation and a renowned community organization in this small city about 50 miles north of Baltimore. "Basketball is the lowest thing on the totem pole in this building. We build communities. We change people's lives."

Still, lingering frustration is evident, as when the school's basketball coach, Isiah Anderson, says: "My blood curdles a little bit when I hear `basketball factory.' ... It's as simple as this: How could you be against kids going to college?"

The events at Crispus Attucks recall the experiences of St. John's at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Flint Hill Academy in Oakton, Va., and, closer to Baltimore, in the girls basketball program at Towson Catholic. All of these schools scaled back wildly successful, if controversial, programs.

To some, like York school board member Cameron Texter, the Crispus Attucks controversy shows how society places an undue emphasis on athletics.

"Too often, people put the glamour of excellence on the basketball court ahead of the drudgery of excellence in academics," Texter says. "The balance got way out of whack [at Crispus Attucks], and we had to make sure it was brought back into balance."

`Mental toughness'

Crispus Attucks seems an unlikely place for such a controversy. Named for a black martyr of the 1770 Boston Massacre who was among the first to die in the cause of American independence, the school is housed in a community center that is acclaimed for improving the lot of some of the town's neediest residents.

From a brick building that stands like a citadel among the peeling-paint rowhouses and vacant lots in the South George Street area of York, the Crispus Attucks Center and its affiliated entities provide subsidized day care, operate a senior center, run a job placement service, help juvenile offenders earn high school diplomas and rehabilitate housing through a job-training program.

The job training and education programs, initially funded by federal dollars, have been supported by private donations and, starting last year, by $300,000 from the York school district under its charter school program.

The charter school is a one- to two-year program designed to help York-area dropouts and at-risk students to obtain diplomas while earning paychecks for working construction jobs.

The first class of 52 students to graduate from the charter school included Lafonte Johnson and Dontaz Dean, basketball stars from Baltimore who say Crispus Attucks helped them reach academic goals that eluded them at Dunbar High.

"I proved a lot of people wrong," Johnson said from Las Vegas, where he is studying and preparing to play basketball at UNLV.

He remembers the moment when he learned that his SAT scores had met NCAA standards. Crying and shaking, he called his mother in Baltimore with the news: "I got the score."

Last year, Johnson auditioned in the school gym for college coaches such as UNLV's Bill Bayno. On a recent morning, however, about 30 youngsters, boys and girls, new students for a new school year, were sitting in a broad circle in the gym, receiving the final word in the school's introductory "mental toughness week."

"If you've got a headache, come to school. If you've got aches and pains, come to school. You'll notice one thing about the staff here: We're hardly ever absent," barked program manager Warren Moody.

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