At Luke C. Moore Academy, forming a basketball team gave troubled students a needed outlet

In its first year fielding a basketball team, Luke C. Moore Academy has found that the sport is a rallying point for student-athletes working to make their second chance count. In this behind-the-scenes look, many members of the team discuss their journey, including the team's only female member, Erika Miller.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 12:36 AM

Just a couple of hours before Eugene Williams was set to play his first varsity basketball game earlier this month, the former high school dropout triumphantly hoisted his jersey in the makeshift locker room. This was what he worked toward: a chance finally to play high school basketball, while also putting his life back on track.

Alongside Williams that afternoon were players whose paths included similar missteps on the District's streets. Some had spent time in jail; many had spent time around drugs; all had flunked out of or been expelled from other D.C. high schools before landing at Luke C. Moore Academy, the city's only public alternative high school.

Opened in 1970, Moore had never fielded an interscholastic sports team. Sports never seemed to fit alongside the curriculum. That changed, however, this winter. After more than a year of preparation, the school's new administration was able to put a boys' basketball team into the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. The Eagles finished the year 1-11 and will not qualify for the DCIAA playoffs, but those involved with the team acknowledge this is one record that doesn't matter - the basketball was the thing.

"That's all I was waiting for," said Williams, who enrolled at Luke C. Moore in November at the behest of his girlfriend, after he spent the past three years bouncing between schools in the District and Montgomery County before he stopped going to classes at Paint Branch last March. "When I got out there, that was it for me. That was the reason I came back [to school]. Now, maybe I can get my diploma and do something with my life."

Williams knows he's almost out of options. He winces when asked what he would be doing now if Luke C. Moore had not decided to field a basketball team. Looking around at his teammates, Williams knows he has plenty of company.

"A lot of these kids are looking for a second chance, but some, a fifth chance," said Carlos Perkins, Luke C. Moore's assistant principal. "But for most of them, it's their last chance."

When Azalia Hunt-Speight, 30, took over as Moore principal prior to the 2009-10 school year, average daily attendance at the Brookland school was 32 percent, according to DCPS.

"The first thing we said was, 'How do we turn this place into a place that people want to be?' " she said, noting enrollment this year is 289. "Sports matters. It helps you to see the light."

Even though the school moved into a renovated and modernized building for the 2006-07 school year, it was clear to Perkins why so few students wanted to be there.

"When we walked into the building, it felt like an adult facility," he said, referring to the bare walls, devoid of the school's maroon and gold, renderings of Moore's mascot or anything to unite a geographically disparate student body. "We wanted it to feel like a school."

Since Luke C. Moore never had a team, its students had to hurry to other schools at dismissal to play for their teams, per DCPS rules for schools that don't sponsor a particular sport. And that only happened if they were able to meet DCIAA eligibility standards.

A point of pride

"What does it mean, in the context of Luke C. Moore, for Luke C. Moore to have a basketball team?" Perkins asked, explaining how the administration debated starting a team. "We want you to be proud of your school, and, ultimately, we realized that this is something that can do that."

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