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Charter school basketball squads struggle to survive

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; D10

During basketball season, Ebony Jones spent 20 to 30 minutes on a bus after school just to get to the gym where she and her teammates from IDEA Public Charter School practiced and played games. On at least one occasion, the Timberwolves arrived at the Capital Sports Complex -- a District Heights facility with 10 courts, a fitness club and the ambiance of a Costco -- only to find that their opponent had disbanded. And on the nights when the Timberwolves did play, they often did so in front of just a smattering of friends and family members.

"It's a long ride," Jones said of the daily trip from the Northeast school. "But that's how it is in charter schools. We've got to fend for our own selves."

Public charter schools were introduced in 1997 as a way to expand educational opportunities in the District. The importance of athletics varies among the city's 16 charter high schools; while a handful of programs -- such as the boys' basketball teams at Friendship Collegiate, KIMA and Cesar Chavez -- have aspirations of playing against top competition and producing high-profile recruits, most operate with a more modest tenor.

Jones's experience at IDEA is, in many ways, representative of most of the girls' basketball teams who participated in the Washington Charter School Athletic Association at the start of the season. The junior chose to attend IDEA for academic reasons, but sports is an important part of her high school experience.

"Part of my world would be shattered if they took sports away from me," said Jones, who also plays on IDEA's flag football and soccer teams, and played on the baseball team as a freshman. "It gives you something to look forward to at the end of the day."

But there is a hit-or-miss nature to most charter schools' schedules. Teams disband during the season, revised schedules are made and sometimes makeup games do not get communicated to both teams.

Junior Yukia Richardson remembers the time during her freshman season when IDEA's opponent failed to appear.

"My face just dropped," Richardson said. "Now? I'm so used to it."

Coach Sean Williams, who is in his first season, said coaching X's and O's is a much smaller part of his job than he ever envisioned.

"Every time when I tell them to get on a bus," Williams said, "they always ask me, 'Is the other team going to show?' I have to work to keep them involved because it's easy for them to say, 'I quit.' "

They wouldn't be the first. The degree of interest in participation varies among charter schools. According to Don Cole, commissioner of the WCSAA, which he founded in 2002, 11 charter-school girls' basketball teams began the season in the league. When the playoffs opened, there were only six teams still playing.

When the league was first formed, "we never thought in our wildest dreams it would be hard to find gymnasium space," Cole said, "because there are so many gyms in the city not being used or underused."

But Cole said Capital Sports Complex -- known in basketball circles as the "Run and Shoot" -- is his best option. For court use, the WCSAA pays $70 per hour, which comes from each school's seasonal membership fee for the league. The complex bears little resemblance to a school environment. Games are held on one of two courts along the right side of the building. There's no public address. No pregame national anthem. Most schools don't have cheerleaders. The walls lack banners commemorating a school's past championships.

"Even if we do win a championship, where are we going to hang our banner?" said Jones, whose team lost in its WCSAA semifinal. "Excuse me, Capital Sports Complex, you've been so nice to let us play here. Can we hang a banner here? Come on, really?"

IDEA doesn't count on backing from its classmates. Capital Sports Complex isn't close to a Metro station.

"When I say I have a game here," junior Nia Gilchrist said, my friends "say, 'Where is that?' It's kind of hard for them to get here. My mom and dad usually come, but that's mainly it. None of my friends come out."

Jones isn't as lucky. Her mother, Thomasine Jones, doesn't have a car. She came to games in the past when she was able to get a ride from a friend, but wasn't able to get to any this season.

"It makes me upset sometimes that I can't see [Ebony] play," she said. "I don't know why there isn't a place in D.C. that they can play."

Ebony wanted to see what she was missing out on, so last October, she and a friend went to Coolidge's homecoming football game. Five months later, Jones still talked about it in stunned disbelief.

"I've never seen nothing like it," she said. "It's like a college game. You got parents, you got little kids with their faces painted, school shirts everywhere. I'm like, we don't even have school items to sell at our school. It seemed like for every player, they brought five family members who brought five friends who also brought friends.

"The support gives you a sense of encouragement. I've got one friend who drives and she comes to my games. That's it."

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