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Private Schools: Lessons from the Field

Sports play a big role at Washington’s private schools, from helping kids build character and get into college to raising money and a school’s profile

It’s the second Saturday in September, and 4,500 people have flooded Georgetown Prep’s campus to watch the Jesuit Gridiron Classic. A matchup between two of the oldest all-boys Catholic high schools in the country, the annual football game pits the Gonzaga Eagles against the Georgetown Prep Little Hoyas.

The game is important not just for the players but also for students, parents, alumni, and—perhaps most important—the schools. A strong sports program can bolster a school’s reputation, attract students, strengthen its alumni network, and boost fundraising.

The stands are packed. Gonzaga’s section is a sea of purple hats and face paint. On Prep’s side, a throng of boys in navy blue is making the bleachers sway. The cheering sections take turns rooting for their classmates—and teasing the competition.

Parents, teachers, and alumni mingle among the students or wander up the hill to peek inside Prep’s new $23-million athletic center. Grade-schoolers in Gonzaga and Prep T-shirts toss footballs on the track that loops the field.

“It will definitely be the most emotional game we play all year,” Georgetown Prep captain Pat Cotter says before the game. “With Prep and Gonzaga, there’s a lot of tradition.”

Such rivalries contribute to the experience of attending a private school rich with history. Cheering alongside classmates fosters school pride—a feeling that schools hope students will carry with them long after graduation.

Sports also open a school’s doors to the community. Prospective students and parents can see firsthand how kids interact with one another, their coaches, and their opponents.

Big games give alumni the chance to return to campus and reminisce about their high-school days—and may inspire them to write a check to their alma mater or its causes. This year’s Jesuit Gridiron Classic raised more than $100,000 for the Washington Jesuit Academy, a middle school in Northeast DC that educates inner-city boys.

Success on the field and court is also felt in the college-counseling office. At girls-lacrosse powerhouse St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes, ten girls went on to play college lacrosse last year at schools like Columbia, Stanford, Dartmouth, and Princeton.

“At some of these schools—St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes, Landon—kids don’t even have to be starters to get recruited,” says Bea Fuller, a college counselor at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda. “Just to be on those teams, it’s enough.”

By raising visibility, sports help a school compete for students. “Kids read the sports page, so it’s nice to be in there every once in a while,” says Georgetown Prep president Father William George. “We’ve never done any analysis, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that Marcus Mason and Roy Hibbert are always mentioned along with Georgetown Prep.”

Administrators at most private schools say that instilling strong morals and building character are as important as academics—and that sports are one of the best ways to teach such values as leadership, teamwork, and resiliency.

“Occasionally a parent will say, ‘My son is only going to play one sport because we want him to do better in his grades,’ ” says Prep’s Father George. “And inevitably the grades go down. Athletics helps a child focus.”

Because the coaching staff at many private schools is mostly made up of teachers, joining a team helps kids connect with their instructors. “Let’s say you’re struggling in English,” says St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes athletic director Samantha Eustace. “You are going to feel a lot more comfortable going to get help if you know your teacher outside the classroom as a coach, too.”

Marlana Kain—whose daughter, Kylie, plays lacrosse and field hockey at DC’s Georgetown Visitation—joined the cheerleading squad in high school because sports weren’t as common for girls in her day. Kain says sports have built Kylie’s confidence and taught her lessons—respect for authority, how to win and lose gracefully, the benefits of exercise—that she’ll carry with her to adulthood.

Kain loves that her daughter spends free time at practice or traveling to tournaments with her club lacrosse team: “It’s a healthy outlet—she’s not sitting around at the mall on the weekends.”

But have school sports become too intense? As private-school tuitions have risen, high-school athletics have taken on a more professional feel. Kids battle on turf fields, train in state-of-the-art weight rooms, and shoot hoops in NCAA-regulation gyms.

“If you’re a parent about to write a check for $30,000, you’re going to look around and say, ‘This is what this school offers, and this is what that school offers,’ ” says Drew Johnson, athletics director at the Landon School in Bethesda.

And it’s not just the buildings; athletic directors and coaches say the level of competition at private high schools around Washington has been increasing for years.

“Twenty-five years ago, we played eight games a season,” says St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes girls-lacrosse coach Kathy Jenkins. “Eventually we got up to 12 or 14 games. Now we’re playing 20-plus games a season in all the sports.”

Donald Dunbar, who owns the school-counseling firm Dunbar Educational Consultants, says colleges set the stage for the professionalization of high-school sports: “Colleges don’t want well-rounded kids. They want somebody who has developed a talent in depth—whether it’s figure skating or violin or lacrosse.”

Three-sport athletes have become an anomaly. Instead, players crowd baseball diamonds, basketball courts, or soccer fields every month of the year. Many kids on high-school teams join competitive clubs to improve their game and get exposure to college coaches. Even athletes who aren’t hoping to get recruited go to summer camps and play on club teams just to keep up.

Most high-school coaches and athletic directors oppose specialization. They say kids cheat themselves out of valuable experiences and friendships if they narrow themselves to one sport too soon.

Coaches like working with well-rounded athletes. Says Holton-Arms college counselor Bea Fuller, who used to coach lacrosse at Georgetown Day School: “My favorite lacrosse players were the ones who played basketball. They didn’t even have to be that good, but the movement on the field is so similar.”

To buck the specialization trend and encourage more kids to participate, most private high schools offer at least one sport every season with a no-cut policy. Some—like the Potomac School in McLean—require that students play a certain number of sports every year.

Schools also are creating more options for kids. Landon’s Drew Johnson says his school recently added club teams in fencing, water polo, and squash.

The small size of private schools can make it easier for average athletes to compete. Dunbar says that most private high schools can maintain only two or three “premier” sports. If a school is a lacrosse powerhouse, its baseball or tennis team may have spots for more casual athletes.

Says Geoff Jones, headmaster of the Potomac School: “Few of us are really going to be building our lives around athletics. Sports are largely about training and preparing for life.”

This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.  

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