Project aims to create quality youth sports programs in Baltimore – Baltimore Sun
A three-year initiative is underway in Baltimore to transform the state of youth athletics by studying the quality and accessibility of programs, directing teams to available facilities and connecting kids with the sports they’re most interested in.
Project Play — a partnership between Under Armour and the Washington-based Aspen Institute — aims to use Baltimore as a laboratory to guide other cities in the development of programs that help urban youths stay fit and engaged.
Keney Davis, 16, learned the importance last year of picking the right sport. She said playing soccer and tennis drew out her aggression, but she found peace and motivation in the pool as a member of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School swim team. Davis found she could channel those feelings to other parts of her life.
If Project Play can help other young people experience the same satisfaction by participating in the sport best suited to their personalities, Keney said it could lead to big results for Baltimore.
“If I have a bad day in school, I can’t wait for swim practice, because in the water you’re just floating,” said Keney, who will be a junior in the fall. “You’re just doing you. You don’t have to worry about other people.”
The project will kick off publicly Thursday at the UA House at Fayette, an East Baltimore community center. The Aspen Institute will release a draft report at the event based on an analysis of sports in the surrounding neighborhoods — a two-square-mile area that is home to 17 schools, 19 outdoor basketball courts, 14 parks, five pools, four recreation centers and one ice rink.
As part of the analysis, more than 1,800 students were surveyed to gauge their interests and experience, pinpoint what sports they want to try and the reasons they don’t participate more often in athletics. The findings will set the groundwork for the project, giving community leaders a place to begin developing citywide plans.
Project coordinator Andre Fountain, who grew up in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood, said the purpose is to build healthy communities through sport — engaging children and teens physically, emotionally and socially. The institute cites research that shows active kids have better life outcomes. They are less like to be obese, score up to 40 percent higher on tests, are less likely to smoke, use drugs or get pregnant, 15 percent more likely to go to college, have lower health costs and be more productive at work.
Project Play is part of a national effort of the same name that the Aspen Institute launched in 2013.
Under Armour will contribute $600,000 over three years to make Baltimore the first “model community” under the national initiative. Once the local project is complete, the findings will be shared with urban leaders across the country.
Stacey Ullrich, senior director of global giving for Under Armour, said the Baltimore-based company wants to help local civic and sport groups mobilize, provide more opportunities for youths and identify breakthrough strategies.
“Baltimore has a rich history of developing its children and communities through participation in sports, from the early days of Babe Ruth to the proliferation of recreation centers that anchored communities throughout the city,” Ullrich said in a statement. “Through this approach, together, we will be able to expand the quality and quantity of sports experiences for Baltimore youth so they may receive all of the associated physical, mental and social-emotional benefits.”
The survey results are part of phase one, which also will include evaluating access to available school and nonprofit facilities and recreation centers. Another report will be released in September, launching the second of three phases to be completed over the following two years.
From there, Fountain said Project Play will try to develop methods for tracking success, ways for high-quality organizations to work together and the sharing of documented improvements. He expects the research will delve into how to address a lack of coaches, create more shared-use agreements, address safety concerns about youths’ travel to and from practice and examine other challenges, such as equipment costs and fears about concussions and other injuries.
He stressed that the project will be focused on access for all kids regardless of their skill level.
“The whole initiative is built on collective impact, a common agenda and shared systems,” said Fountain, who lives in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. “The common agenda is for us to get everybody on board and supportive of growing the quality and quantity of sports.”
The survey of the East Baltimore students revealed that swimming and gymnastics ranked first among the sports they would most like to try. Fountain attributes that popularity to the influence of Olympians Michael Phelps, the swimmer and Towson native who trained at a Mount Washington pool, and gymnasts Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas.
Phelps is relatable because of his connection to Baltimore, Fountain said. And he said the success of Biles and Douglas, both black women and highly decorated Olympians, resonated strongly with female students in the study area, which is predominately African-American.
Four of 10 students surveyed also said homework was the biggest barrier to playing sports. The draft report suggests alleviating students’ concerns by adding an academic component to athletic programs, such as tutoring or homework help.
Besides the survey results, the draft report addresses the impact of city recreation center closures over recent years, calling it a “defining struggle” for sports programming.
In the 1980s, the city had more than 130 centers and now has about 40. Fewer than three in 10 of the youths in the East Baltimore focus area playing sports in the four nearby centers. Setting up shared-use agreements would help give more kids and teams access to fields, gyms and pools.
Project Play will also look to address concerns about football, which represents the city school district’s biggest sports investment, according to Aspen Institute’s preliminary findings. The district spent more than $585,000 on football — nearly the same amount it spent on all five other fall sports — with money going to coach stipends, transportation to away games, school police overtime, helmets and shoulder pads and the cost to keep paramedics and nurses on hand during games.