When the U.S. Squash Open — one of the sport’s two “majors”— opens at Drexel University this week, it’ll do more than help determine the world’s number one squash player. It will also bring much-needed attention to “SquashSmarts,” the educational initiative that blends education with athletics, with the purpose of reaching at-risk youth and providing an after-school safe haven.
Philadelphia is home to one of only four such “SquashSmarts” programs in the country. SquashSmarts now operates on Drexel University’s main campus, and out of north Philadelphia’s Lenfest Center.
This event comes on the heels of first lady Michelle Obama’s visit last July to SquashSmarts’ Lenfest Center as part of her Let’s Move! initiative.
“The purpose of ‘SquashSmarts’ is to change the lives of boys and girls in public schools. It’s the use of squash combined with intense academic enrichment,” said SquashSmarts Philadelphia Executive Director Stephen Gregg, a longtime squash executive who previously worked with U.S. Squash Racquets Association, and is co-founder of the National Urban Squash in Education Association. “We start with kids in fifth and sixth grade, where the focus is on middle school years, and the students stay with us through college. The onus is on us as adults and staff to make the program exciting.
“Sport obviously appeals to a lot of young people,” Gregg continued. “But subject matter also matters, and when kids are excited about a subject, it keeps bringing them back.”
SquashSmarts, founded in 2001, has reached more than 200 young people through its initial collaborations with Morten McMichael and Charles Drew public schools and Drexel University. SquashSmarts has a stated goal of providing focused and structured attention on the youth, promotion of the sport and encouraging diversity and finally, to provide leadership in community outreach initiatives.
Although not the biggest program, SquashSmarts has experienced a great deal of success, including a 100 percent college acceptance rate of the students involved in the program. To achieve that, Gregg said, his organization instills a sense of ownership in the kids. It also helps that Gregg and his staff incentivizes the program.
“We want 80–90 percent attendance rate, and we’re serious about that, because we help them with the high school placement process, whether they want to go to a better public school or a charter. We then walk them through the college election process,” said Gregg, noting that his staff is trying to break the cycle of public school dropouts aided by the lack of positive adult role models. “One of the biggest hooks is the system of incentives embedded in the program. We had over 40 students attend several summer camps, including two students who went to England.
“They respond to it,” Gregg continued. “They get to go to squash camp and Sixers games, and [there are] other positive reinforcements to excite kids and to keep them working. It’s much more than squash.”
Those incentive-laden programs have reaped solid rewards, above and beyond the perfect college acceptance rate. These gains are found in the disposition and success of the youth, many of whom come back to SquashSmarts as junior leaders once they make it to college.
“The most exciting thing is to see the program come full circle. In the beginning years, it was just me going into schools, beating a squash racquet. Now the students make the best ambassadors,” Gregg said, mentioning that SquashSmarts is also attempting to break the Ivy League stereotype of squash being played only by uptight rich suburbanites. “I’ll know the program is successful when I don’t have a job, when the kids come back and replace me as director.”