Coaching for Life Success at Monday Night Academy

High school senior Priscilla Morales and Armando Olivares pose with their dance group. Photos by Victoria Schein.

By late afternoon up on the third floor of Seelye Hall, daytime classes have let out and quiet descends on the classrooms. Except, that is, when Monday Night Academy is in session.

At 4 p.m. on those days, more than 40 middle and high school students emerge from a bus from Springfield to take part in the Smith-based portion of an ambitious youth sports initiative called Project Coach, now in its 11th year at Smith. They are a select group of students from urban schools across Springfield, and they’re just getting started on the second half of their school day.

First things first. Project Coach grew out of a collaboration between education professor Sam Intrator and Donald Siegel, professor of exercise and sport studies. Intrator had created an urban education initiative to introduce Smith education students to what it means to teach in urban schools, via teaching internships with Smith alumnae in schools in New York City, Chicago and other urban areas. Meanwhile, Siegel had been instrumental in developing several youth sports initiatives. The two professors, along with a team of Smith students, joined forces to “imagine a program that would use sports as a way to achieve better academic results,” Intrator says. And they looked to make an impact closer to home, in a smaller city that faced the same types of inner-city challenges. They focused on the elementary schools in Springfield’s North End, where after-school options were severely limited and where the playing fields were either abandoned or were being used by more affluent towns. The area has high rates of incarceration and many single-parent families, so few adults have time to volunteer to coach youth sports teams.

Intrator and Siegel conceived an after-school sports program in which young people mentored each other in what Intrator calls “cascading apprenticeships.” “The basic kernel is that college students prepare high school students to work with elementary school children,” he says.

Middle and high school students apply to Project Coach much as they would to a job. In fact, they get paid for the hours they put in as coaches in after-school programs as well as for their training time during the Monday Night Academy. “Through the coaching, teens learn essential life leadership skills: communicating, resolving conflict, motivating others and thinking strategically,” Intrator says.

It begins with academics. Spread out among Seelye’s third-floor classrooms and in the hallway, the teens huddle with nearly an equal number of Smith tutors, getting homework help with geometry lessons, vocabulary words and challenging reading assignments. These are teenagers, after all, so they also use this hour to eat tortilla chips and clementines, banter with each other and check their cellphones. Still, the teens are training to be leaders, so maintaining their grades is critical.

Coaching for Change. At 5 p.m., Project Coach Director Jo Glading-DiLorenzo gathers the entire group of teens and tutors into one classroom for the day’s version of Coaching for Change. “During this time, we focus on a skill that we think is important for success as a coach,” Glading-diLorenzo says.

On this day, tutor Anna Hallman ’14 leads off by reminding the group that anyone on an academic improvement plan must attend an additional Thursday tutoring session. If they don’t, they face a cut in pay and will be put on probation. “We’re not trying to be unreasonable crankypants, but these are the expectations,” Hallman tells them. For these youngsters, the consequences are serious. Each teen member of Project Coach is paid for seven hours a week, and since the program has a waiting list more than 80 names long, no one wants to take the chance of losing this gig.

The big group breaks into smaller teams that are planning nutrition and fitness projects to inspire third to fifth graders to eat better.  “Think big,” Hallman says. “That’s what we’re asking you to do.”

Game time. At 6 p.m., the group heads to Ainsworth gym for two hours to learn games, activities and salsa dancing, and most importantly, how to teach those skills to children. These coaching sessions are primarily led by graduate students in Smith’s exercise and sport studies program. The next day, in three resource-hungry Springfield elementary schools, the newly trained teen coaches will lead after-school programs; they will also serve as valuable role models for children who desperately need them.

“Coaching is a metaphor for everything that we do,” Glading-DiLorenzo says. “The techniques and skills that we teach are applicable to all facets of life.”

Being a part of an aspirational partnership with Smith College has an immediate effect on the lives of the teen coaches. For high school junior Madison McCarthy, it means applying to this year’s Smith Summer Science and Engineering Program. High school senior Priscilla Morales, a three-year Project Coach participant, applied early decision to Smith and will be a part of the class of 2018.

For Armando Olivares, a seven-year veteran of Project Coach and soon a first-year student at Holyoke Community College, the program has been transformative. “Project Coach has played an enormous role in my life,” he says. “The opportunities just keep coming for me to meet my dreams.”

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Huddle up. At 7:45, the entire group—Smith undergraduate and graduate students, high school and middle school students, Project Coach staff—get in a big circle to single out their colleagues for praise and to suggest ways to improve for next time. Monday Night Academy ends with a huddle, a unison shout of “1-2-3 Project Coach!” and at 8 p.m., they’re on the bus back to Springfield.