Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel of the National Women’s Law Center.
Jhoana Herrera didn’t play sports growing up in Columbia Heights. Not that she didn’t want to. Like many girls in low-income communities, she didn’t have any place to play. There were competitive travel and rec leagues for girls across town in wealthier communities with active parents. But she and her family didn’t know about them, nor could they swing the fees or transportation to practices and games.
So when DC Scores, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing soccer to low-income elementary and middle schools, set up an after-school program in her middle school a few years ago, Herrera jumped. The play, the competition, the intense focus while on the field and the camaraderie with her teammates sparked a deep love of the game and gave her a sense of pride.
But when Herrera reached high school, McKinley Tech didn’t have much of a team. The coaching was inconsistent, she said, as was the school’s support. Her enthusiasm fizzled. She quit. And in the two years since, she has spent her afternoons sitting on the couch, doing homework and watching TV. Now 16, she has gained 20 pounds and become shy and self-conscious.
“I feel people are looking at me because I’m so fat,” she said, eyes downcast.
DC Scores, the largest nonprofit after-school program operating in the city, has spent nearly 20 years giving girls such as Herrera a chance to play sports while young, building a pipeline that coaches and athletic directors say is crucial to girls’ sports participation in high school and beyond, much as Pop Warner football and Little League do for young boys.
But as more girls such as Herrera move on to high school and find they again have no place to play, organizers of DC Scores are frustrated that they’re building a pipeline to nowhere.
“We feel we are creating so much interest in sports, but the system doesn’t support it,” said Amy Nakamoto, DC Scores executive director. Last year, the organization fielded teams for 1,450 low-income kids, nearly half of them girls, from 42 D.C. public and charter schools in all eight wards. They played 200 games a season, culminating in a DC Scores Capital Cup championship.
“It’s hard to watch a girl play soccer for six years and love it, then not play at all,” Nakamoto said.
In the District, only four of 15 traditional public high schools have consistent girls’ soccer teams, Nakamoto said. “That’s insane.”
The D.C. public school system is the subject of two Title IX complaints lodged with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that the high school sports programs discriminate against girls, with gaps as high as 26 percent in some schools between the percentage of girls enrolled at the school and those who participate in sports.
“We have not done enough for girls’ sports in D.C. At all,” said Adrian Valdivia, who coaches girls’ soccer at Bell Multicultural High School and runs the school’s teen pregnancy prevention and health programs. “If we have to get sued for things to happen, then we need to get sued.”
D.C. schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz, while not commenting on the complaints filed, has said that the city has “pursued an aggressive agenda to help ensure our female student-athletes are able to compete in a variety of athletics.” In recent years, the District has added bowling and flag football teams for girls in some high schools.
But starting in high school is too late, Valdivia and others at DC Scores say. The more time girls have to compete and train, the better they get and the more they want to play.
“When you start later, when you’re not getting good training, when you know you’re not very good, and then you have to play a team with more experienced players, like [Woodrow] Wilson [High School], and get crushed 20-0, you quit. The failure feeds itself,” Valdivia said.
In the seven years that Valdivia has run the school’s soccer team, the DC Scores pipeline has boosted his team roster from a handful to more than 100 girls who fill varsity and junior varsity teams. At the same time, he said he’s seen teen pregnancies fall from 35 or 40 a year down to around five.
The National Women’s Law Center, which filed the most recent complaint in June, and other sports organizations say that schools across the country still aren’t providing a fair opportunity for girls to play sports, particularly in urban districts.
In the Washington area, systemwide gaps range from 2.5 percent in Fairfax County, 4.2 percent in Prince George’s County, 7 percent in Montgomery County to 12 percent in D.C. public schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2009 data. Alexandria did not report sports participation by gender that year. And in Arlington County, slightly more girls played sports than were enrolled in school.
Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, said that disparities are most pronounced at schools with high populations of African American and Hispanic students. Eighty-five percent of the student population in D.C. public schools are members of those two groups.
“For girls of color in particular, we know that they’re less physically active during adolescence than white girls, and they’re less likely to participate in sports outside of school than white girls,” Chaudhry said. “So what DC Scores is doing, creating the pipeline early, is critical.”
Over the years, Nakamoto and others at DC Scores said they’ve been told that fewer opportunities exist for girls in high school because girls aren’t as interested in sports. Many athletic directors and coaches say it’s tough to recruit Latino girls, in particular, because their parents would rather have them at home than playing a “boy’s sport.”
Nakamoto scoffed at the notion that girls aren’t interested in sports. “We never have problems recruiting,” she said. “We’ve had 15 to 20 schools on our waiting list in the last few years.”
But she does not dispute the difficulty of infusing a sports culture for girls and for soccer into low-income or Latino communities.
On a recent hot summer day, Nakamoto watched over a soccer practice at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights, one of four summer camp sites that DC Scores is running. Emily Castillo, 12, wearing a bright blue oversize T-shirt and neon yellow soccer cleats and sweating from a hard practice, wandered by with Nohemy Salomon, the other half of what she calls their soccer team’s “Dangerous Duo.”
Salomon wore street clothes and carried a toddler on her hip.
Nakamoto looked at her quizzically. “Are you not at camp?”
“I had to babysit this summer,” Salomon answered apologetically, before quickly saying she’d be back in the duo in the fall. “Soccer is like part of us now.”
To build a sports culture, DC Scores builds trust in the community, Nakamoto said. The program is year-round and focuses not only on soccer, but on writing, art and community service. According to DC Scores surveys, parents have become more investedas they see their daughters become more engaged in school as well as more confident and physically fit.
But the pipeline they’re building, Nakamoto said, needs to lead somewhere.
Just as Jhoana Herrera got hooked on soccer young at DC Scores, so, too, did Claudia Merlos. Merlos, 17, had difficulties at home and found soccer an escape when she started playing in third grade for DC Scores. Then, she said she grew to love everything about the game, from the skills she was constantly improving to the way being a member of a team taught her to talk to others.
When Merlos got to Hardy Middle School and discovered it had no girls’ soccer team, she gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition and forced the school to create one. She helped the computer teacher, who volunteered to coach, learn the rules of the game.
Herrera went through the DC Scores pipeline only to find a non-functioning soccer program at McKinley and lose steam. McKinley has an 11 percent gap between the girls enrolled and those who participate in sports, according to the complaint. Now, she said, she looks at all the medications her father takes for his diabetes. “I’m so worried I’ll end up like that.”
But Merlos came out of the pipeline and went to Wilson, one of a handful of D.C. public high schools with a competitive girls’ soccer team.
She played junior varsity and varsity and became a team captain. And, like Herrera, she has come back to DC Scores to help coach younger girls at summer camp.
“I volunteer here because I want young girls to experience what I did,” she said. “I was a shy, fragile child. . . . But through soccer and DC Scores, I’ve become an optimistic, competitive and outspoken person. It made me an athlete.”
Merlos, who wears a necklace with a dangling soccer ball, is headed to Trinity College in the fall, where she will play on the school’s NCAA Division III soccer team.
Emma Brown contributed to this report.