A foreign concept

At Gaithersburg High School, most teams struggle to attract diverse rosters

The diversity at Gaithersburg high school has strengthened the bond of the football players, who have come from a wide array of backgrounds and cultures to focus on a common goal: winning.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz, a 1968 Gaithersburg High School graduate, has a saying about his home town, where his family has operated a clothing store since 1918.

"When I was growing up, the kids in my class came to the fair to show their cattle," said Katz, who lived near the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. "Now we have to take our kids to the fair to show them what cattle look like. It's a very different world."

Once a rural outpost known for dairy farms, Gaithersburg has grown from a countrified enclave into a multiethnic hub, particularly in the past 20 years, with Holstein talk long ago displaced by such topics as development, immigration and a day-laborer center.

Gaithersburg High, which draws students from inside and outside the community, has evolved with the city, as have so many schools in diverse pockets of the Washington area. But with the exception of soccer, team rosters -- dotted with names such as Cortez and Kpadehyea and Washirapunya and Gwashavanhu -- are not as reflective of the school's demographic shifts, because fewer foreign-rooted students try out for athletics. The lack of participation, administrators say, is attributed to an unfamiliarity with sports that American students have grown up playing.

Although the school plays in the Maryland 4A classification, the largest, the lack of involvement by foreign-born and first-generation American students makes it more of a 3A school in terms of willing bodies, one Gaithersburg coach said. The challenge, athletic officials said, is to convince those students and their families that high school sports can enhance their education and socialization.

One-third of Gaithersburg's 2,000-student enrollment is Hispanic, a group that made up 5 percent of the school population 20 years ago. The school's 26.8 percent black population includes students from 14 African nations. An additional 10.4 percent is Asian.

"You don't have to leave Gaithersburg to go to another country, basically," said Gaithersburg track coach Fran Parry, who has worked at the school since 1980.

Between 7 and 8 percent of Hispanic boys and 5 to 7 percent of Hispanic girls are projected to play winter and spring sports, according to school athletic administrators. Assistant athletic director Nate Parry, Fran's son, is a 2002 Gaithersburg graduate and also an assistant cross-country coach. He refers to the dearth of sports participation among Hispanics and other groups as "a cultural disconnect."

It's a divide that the school is trying to bridge -- and will be for years to come. Three of the elementary schools that feed into Gaithersburg have Hispanic enrollments of between 47 and 61 percent.

Demographic change

These are different circumstances than those encountered by John Harvill during most of his 43 years as football coach at Gaithersburg. Harvill, who has lived within walking distance of the school for more than 50 years, recalls the days when his athletes would have to go home early to milk cows.

King Farm, a former dairy farm in Rockville about 2 1/2 miles from the Gaithersburg campus, is now a 430-acre community of single-family houses, condominiums and apartments not far from the Shady Grove Metro stop. The development shares real estate with barns and silos that remain.

"They do [still] have a couple of farm boys," Harvill, 84, said of the Gaithersburg High population, "but I don't know what they're farming."

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