D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) will be in the stands Thursday at Eastern High when his alma mater, Dunbar, plays Coolidge in the 42nd annual Turkey Bowl. Also expected in the stands for the game, one of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association’s marquee events, will be members of the eighth-ranked team from Friendship Collegiate, a charter school whose program has risen to such prominence that many believe there is little doubt the Knights are the city’s best.
Friendship’s 9-1 season ended a few weeks ago without so much as a playoff game. According to Gray, who has taken an active role in trying to shape District high school athletics, that’s just one of many things that must change on the D.C. high school sports landscape.
Gray said in an interview on Tuesday that the tattered image of the DCIAA needs to be restored and the athletic league needs better marketing, more sports and more resources. He also wants to bring burgeoning public charter athletics into the city-wide fold.
“The charters should have the opportunity to play for what is the ultimate championship,” said Gray, a regular presence at DCIAA events. “How we structure that is still open for discussion. . . . But at the end of the day, I don’t think you have a true city-wide or state-wide championship if you’ve got schools that have been excluded, especially when they are public schools, they just happen to have a different governance model.”
The city’s public charter schools continue growing, totaling more than 32,000 students this school year while enrollment in D.C. Public Schools, which has seen a decades-long decline, stands at nearly 46,000 students. Friendship Collegiate, which beat three-time Turkey Bowl champion H.D. Woodson, 46-6, last month, opened its season on ESPNU and its only loss was in New York to nationally ranked Bergen Catholic (N.J.). Meantime, charter schools Maya Angelou and KIPP fielded their first varsity football teams, and Options started one last season.
“To me, these are public schools just like other schools and we’ve got to find a place for them,” Gray said.
The mayor said he has floated the idea of forming a public charter school league and possibly having the champion play the DCIAA champion for a city title. That could take the place of the Turkey Bowl or be scheduled after the game, he said.
Gray said the Office of the State Superintendent of Education recently posted an opening for a newly created position of a District-wide athletic director that could oversee a public charter league and work with private schools in the city. State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley would be responsible for that hiring, he said.
Gray also addressed the public image of the DCIAA, which has been hurt in the past year. An eligibility scandal cast a cloud over last season’s Turkey Bowl, an episode Gray referred to as “terrible.” Eligibility standards were also an issue during basketball season, both for boys and girls. This football season, three of the DCIAA’s 11 football teams were involved in on-field fights (including Turkey Bowl participant Dunbar) that ended games and resulted in forfeits. Scheduling issues plagued the start of the football season and an eleventh-hour rule change allowed fifth-year seniors to compete, casting the league’s ability to compete against other area schools in doubt.
Repairing that image begins with “improving the schools themselves, which we are working hard on,” Gray said. “There was a time many, many years ago when there were close to 150,000 kids enrolled in DCPS. And now you have about 45,000, so the sheer numbers have reduced. Working to improve those academics conditions will send a message to kids, too.”
Gray said he wanted to add more staff to the athletic office to help better police the league’s rules, chief among them the eligibility of athletes, instead of relying on coaches or administrators to turn in offenders.
Echoing the thoughts of new DCIAA Athletic Director Stephanie Evans, who was introduced last week, Gray said ensuring coaches are properly trained and certified is a priority.
Gray said the DCIAA wants “coaches who realize that their real goal is to be a teacher and are not just teaching the skills of the athletic endeavor but are also teaching the values to these young people. We’ve seen instances where that wasn’t the case. And we’re going to work hard to clean that up.”
The mayor also said he wants a more robust offering of sports, from lacrosse to rugby, at all schools, with an eye for increasing the participation of girls in athletics. He said money could be secured for these ideas by securing donations from foundations and by better marketing existing sports events.
This year’s Turkey Bowl will feature a title sponsor in Safeway, which signed on for a three-year, $150,000 deal, Gray said.
Gray also addressed the competitive imbalance of the DCIAA, noting that it’s an issue that relates directly to the DCPS out-of-boundary policy that allows students to apply to change schools for any reason. The enrollment disparity that results among DCIAA schools creates concerns both in the classroom and on the playing field, Gray said.
“When you have a school that is beating another one at halftime, 40-0, you’ve got a real disparity there,” he said. “And those schools typically don’t have many players, they may have 20, 25 players. And that’s a part of fixing the educational stuff because as you get more kids coming to a particular school, it’s also going to broaden your talent pool of kids that are participating in athletics.”