Scoring some wins in the classroom

High schools: Thanks to the Play It Smart program, football players at Forest Park are going to college in greater numbers than their classmates.

High Schools

July 06, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The smartest thing Dominick Taylor did at Forest Park High was to stay after school.

Afternoons, he practiced football. Evenings, he prepped for the college boards, in a tutorial class set up for varsity players.

The effort paid off. Taylor, who had struggled with the SAT, made his goal on the exam on the fourth try. He earned a partial scholarship to the school of his choice, Crown College in Minnesota, where he expects to play fullback this fall.

A year ago, Taylor's college prospects looked bleak. Recruiters dismissed his low SAT (640 of a possible 1,600) and grade-point average (2.5 out of 4.0). Crown, a Christian school to Taylor's liking, demanded a minimum of 820 on the college boards and a 2.7 GPA.

"I was really depressed. I thought, `I'll never make it,' " said Taylor, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes who also sings in his church choir.

Last winter, Taylor's lot improved. Tutoring helped lift his GPA to 2.8 and his boards to 760. But he was still 60 points shy of the cutoff.

In March, after completing an SAT prep class, Taylor took the test one last time. He scored 830.

"Made it!" he said, beaming. "I'm proud of that."

Taylor got the help he needed through Play It Smart, a nationwide program that prods student-athletes at inner-city schools such as Forest Park. He was one of 18 football-playing seniors, 11 of whom are headed to four-year colleges. Several more are considering junior college. The rest, like many of their classmates at the northwest Baltimore school, don't see academics in their future.

At Forest Park, about one-third of the seniors (36 percent) are headed to four-year colleges, compared with 61 percent for the football team. Players are going to such schools as Morgan State, Bowie State, St. Paul's College (Va.), Benedict College (S.C.) and Grambling State.

The fact that about a half-dozen student-athletes didn't see fit to go on, despite efforts on their behalf, vexes academic coach Greg Ford.

"They just couldn't see the big picture," he said.

The good news is the response of underclassmen who have bought into the venture, said Foresters football coach Obie Barnes. Forest Park began participating two years ago as one of two city schools aided by Play It Smart, which was created in 1998 by the National Football Foundation. In Baltimore, Patterson High also takes part.

Once younger players get in the habit, Barnes expects the program to take off.

"There were seniors who felt [Play It Smart] was, for them, too little, too late," the coach said. "But we had nine juniors and two sophomores go to the SAT tutoring.

"The players who are coming back next year will pass the baton to the freshmen. I look for them to be more marketable."

This year, Ford, who counseled the football team, rounded up tutors and walked students through the daunting college application process. He even talked a neighborhood McDonald's into supplying meals for the SAT Prep program. What football player can resist free burgers?

A number of seniors did just that.

Some excused themselves from after-school workshops, citing jobs or lacrosse practice. One player, offered tutoring in the morning before school, instead slept in. Some began an SAT strategy session, only to walk out in the middle.

Several players stayed the course and took the college boards, but failed to apply for financial aid.

Others offered a rationale for balking. They cited the saga of two players from last year's team who went out of state to college but didn't last the semester. Said one Forest Park player with a shrug: "Why bother to go away to school if I'm just going to come back home?"

"They have so many excuses," said Barnes. "The program hasn't failed; these kids have failed the program."

However, area merchants are investing in the effort, chipping in with goods and services. Last spring, a nearby Thai restaurant wrote a check to school officials. And the project will have its own Web site if a Baltimore entrepreneur has his way.

Even strangers have been moved to contribute. Having read of the program in The Sun in December, Hugh Fitzpatrick asked to get involved. An equities trader from North Baltimore, he suggested a privately administered SAT prep class and offered to help pay for it. Fitzpatrick's colleagues and company, Wachovia Securities, also kicked in funding.

"Hugh just came out of the woodwork and asked if he could help," said Ford, who believes the SAT prep course substantially boosted the team's test scores this year. The 16 senior football players who took the SAT averaged 733, compared with 640 for all Forest Park students.

Becoming more involved, Fitzpatrick organized weekly dialogues with team members. He and a co-worker, Steve Brown, a Wake Forest graduate and 2000 Olympic hurdler, have been meeting up with the players for two months now, usually on Monday nights. They discuss everything from current events to how to balance a checkbook.

"Maybe this is my form of yoga, but it's good for the soul," said Fitzpatrick, 51. "These kids deserve help. There are an awful lot of hurdles in front of them."

Missing from most of those bull sessions is Dominick Taylor, whose summer job as a youth football coach conflicts with the meetings. But Taylor dutifully attended the tutorials earlier this year, a 17-year-old desperate to make the admissions cut at the school of his dreams.

Taylor set his heart on Crown because of his unusual mix of talents - athletics and music.

The college is the perfect choice for her son, said Valerie Greene.

"It's the only school that will let him play football and sing."

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