One man and a talented team of coaches and educators are running a pilot phys ed-based school for at-risk youth. Based on the notion that active kids learn better, this school places great emphasis on physical activity and structure.
When Jai Nanda first told people he wanted to start a school based around sports and physical activity, the reaction, he says, was, “You’re crazy. What are you doing? Why would you do that?”
Starting a school is an extremely difficult proposition — perhaps even more difficult because Nanda decided to launch his new school last year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, one of the neediest communities in New York City.
“We see a lot of families living low income,” Nanda told Glor. “We see a lot of obesity. We see a lot of high school dropouts. So we’ve created a school that attacks the education issue, attacks the health issue in a community where both are critical.”
The lab for Nanda’s experimental school is in two floors of a Pentacostal church, which he’s renting until he finds a permanent home.
The kids come here from all over the city.
Ninety-three percent live below the poverty line; many never showed up for class at their old schools.
But Nanda actively recruits kids that other schools have given up on.
Glor asked, “So, when you go to these schools and say, ‘Give me your worst students,’ their reaction is?”
“‘Woohoo! Awesome! Great!’ ” laughed Nanda. “And not from a ‘We don’t like them’ [attitude], but ‘Someone else can educate them, and get them to be successful? Great! We can’t do it, You want them, you got them.’ It’s a win for everybody.”
Nanda’s daring approach was to flip the whole idea of school on its head. At a time when only six states require phys ed in every grade, and nine states require recess, he decided to make sports the cornerstone of this program.
When students arrive at Urban Dove, they don’t sit behind a desk. They spend the first three hours of every day with their team and coaches.
They play basketball, lift weights, jump rope, use punching bags, ride bikes, and do yoga. Students rotate sports depending on the season.
“Physical education, sports, athletics, I think it’s being dismissed,” Nanda said. “We need to recognize that a full education requires that kids are active.”
What is it about sports? “It’s fun; kids enjoy doing it,” replied Nanda. “I think there’s something special about being on a team.”
Nanda also said that children look at a coach differently: “They’re willing to share. They’re willing to listen.”
And that may be what’s most unique about the program. When kids go to Social Studies, English and Math, their coaches go with them . . . sitting in class, helping with homework, and sorting out problems.
“We see them bright and early in the morning, and then we’re the last people to see them at the end of the day,” said coach Alana Arthurs.
Arthurs, who sees students in gym, in the classroom, in the hallway, laughed: “I follow them, it’s weird!”
Why? “As soon as they walk out that classroom, I’m behind them, trying to find out, ‘Why did you walk out? What’s wrong?’ I feel the need, personally to find out what’s going on, how can I help, how can I fix it, and how can I get you back in the classroom so you can continue to learn.”
When we visited last spring, two of the school’s star students were Miaklya Hall and Chaneil Thomas.
Miakyla said there were many reasons why she rarely showed up at her old school: “You could cut class, leave. Here I don’t feel like leaving because, I don’t know, it’s fun.”