Smart play goes beyond the field

High schools: The Play It Smart program makes a big difference at Patterson through the help of the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden.

July 03, 2002|By Alex Koustenis | Alex Koustenis,SUN STAFF

The Patterson High School football players never thought they would be sitting in Wendy's at 9 on a Saturday morning, especially to study.

But with the school closed on weekends, academic counselor Kelley Bagdasarian had to find a place to hold her study hall.

"It was a pain," junior Eubanks Johnson said. "We just wanted to chill out on the weekend, but Miss Kelley made that her time. But study hall has helped me a lot."

Since the National Football Foundation chose Patterson for the Play It Smart program two years ago, poor grades and test scores are becoming a thing of the past for athletes. The graduating seniors who had been participating since the start raised their grade point averages from a collective 1.9 as sophomores to a 2.47 on a 4-point scale.

The program places an academic counselor into schools that show a need to improve students' grades. The counselor, who is not a certified teacher, also informs athletes of NCAA eligibility rules and financial aid for college.

The national director of Play It Smart, Jim Presbrey, handpicked Bagdasarian for Patterson. He knows the challenges firsthand. Before taking over the helm of the program on the national level, Presbrey was the academic counselor at Orange (N.J.) High School, one of the two original schools in the program in 1998.

In the four years the program has been at Orange, Presbrey has noted a marked improvement.

"It's been an incredible transition," he said. "The program has trickled down into the whole school and then the community."

The newfound academic successes of the schools are largely due to the counselors. This is especially true for Bagdasarian and Patterson. In 2000, she had just received her master's from Springfield College, in Massachusetts, where the program was conceived.

Her typical work day included meeting with her athletes about classes, grades, the SAT exam, college, team or personal issues. She then attended football practice and assisted with the soccer and basketball teams. In the spring, she was the head track coach as well.

Bagdasarian's commitment to her athletes extends well beyond the classroom walls.

Last year, three days before his junior prom, P.J. Matthews wanted to get his driver's license so he could drive himself and his date to the dance. Bagdasarian took him to a Motor Vehicle Administration office and also let him use her car for his test.

"I don't know what my job description is, so I don't know if what I do is above and beyond. I just do what feels right," Bagdasarian said.

Matthews won the Play It Smart Student Athlete of the Year Award that Bagdasarian recently created. He raised his GPA from 1.9 to 2.7 and was accepted into Division III Mount Ida College in Massachusetts, where he plans to play football and lacrosse.

"She's like a big sister to me," Matthews said. "I think she's great. If her and the program weren't here, I wouldn't be going to college. I probably wouldn't have finished high school."

Baltimore City public schools have the highest dropout rate in Maryland at 11.32 percent. Last year, about 44 percent of all Patterson graduates went on to college. This year, 12 of Bagdasarian's 14 graduating football players plan to go to college.

Whether Bagdasarian knows it or not, her students appreciate what she's done for them.

"Nobody else really emphasized how important college was for us," junior Dwayne Whittington said. "I always used to see her smiling. I didn't really understand until I started the program. She's just really upbeat. She's like a sister, mother and mentor all rolled into one."

Athletic director and head football coach Roger Wrenn has noticed a change in his players.

"They're closer to each other now," Wrenn said. "They've always loved football. They've always been boisterous and enthusiastic. But I attribute a lot of their closeness to Kelley."

The program also encourages community service by the athletes. In the past school year, they put in more than 1,500 hours, including Toys for Tots, a walk for the homeless and reading to local elementary schoolers. One of their most recent was a Saturday morning project helping to refurbish the Lou Harpouzie baseball and softball fields at Patterson.

But last year, Patterson almost lost Bagdasarian. The National Football Foundation provides each school with $22,000, which includes the part-time salary for the academic counselor. But Bagdasarian could no longer afford to live on a part-time salary. So Jonathan Ogden of the Ravens and his mother, Cassandra Sneed-Ogden, furnished the rest of Bagdasarian's income so she could be paid full time and remain.

"I like to help people who are trying to better themselves. So we looked around but we had the most interest in them [the Patterson players]," he said. "If she [Bagdasarian] helps one kid, then it's worth it. But she's done a lot for those kids. I couldn't be happier."

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