The first time Bell junior Diana Castillo told her friends she was leaving class a little early for bowling practice, they responded with puzzled looks: What? There’s a bowling team?

“People question if it’s even a sport sometimes,” Castillo said.

For D.C. Public Schools this winter, however, bowling is a varsity sport for the first time — and only for girls. It’s part of an effort by the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association to boost girls’ participation in sports and improve its compliance with Title IX, the law mandating gender equity at all federally funded institutions.

With nearly 50 bowlers drawn from eight of the 17 DCPS high schools, the sport makes only a dent in the near-500 student difference in the number of male high school athletes vs. female, DCPS Athletic Director Stephanie Evans said. But to DCPS officials, it’s a needed and welcome addition to the stable of girls’ sports, which now numbers 11.

“We wanted to make sure we were increasing the number of athletic opportunities for our females,” said Evans, whose office surveyed high school girls last year and adopted the two most-requested sports, flag football (debuting in the spring) and bowling. “And so, in the process of doing that, we didn’t want to go in and push any sports on the girls.”

When school systems are looking to add a sport to help with Title IX compliance, they often turn to bowling because it isn’t particularly expensive or difficult to undertake, according to Gary Brown, the director of collegiate and high school bowling at the U.S. Bowling Congress. Twenty-one states and the District offer bowling as a varsity sport, though neither Maryland nor Virginia does.

High schools also recognize the potential for college scholarships; approximately 100 institutions across the country — including Howard and Maryland-Eastern Shore, which won its second NCAA women’s title last April — offer some form of athletic scholarships for bowling, according to Brown.

But mainly, bowling can be a way to foster school pride and participation among students who wouldn’t necessarily be involved in sports.

“Anybody can do it,” said Brown, who has offered guidance to former DCIAA assistant athletic director Patricia Briscoe, who has shepherded the addition of the sport. “You don’t have to be 7 [feet] tall or run a 4.2 40 or bench 300 pounds to be good.”

“It’s something to do, it’s an experience, it’s fun,” said Dunbar junior Denesheya Cook, who hadn’t played any sports for the Crimson Tide until she bowled last week for the first time in years. “It’s a chance to be more active.”

The first practice was held on Jan. 23 at Parkland Bowl on Silver Hill Road in District Heights because there are few bowling alleys in the District. Players got to miss the last class of the school day, since two chartered buses picked them up from across the city.

There were no tryouts, and there are no team uniforms. The season is five weeks long, with only the last two weeks featuring competitive team bowling. There will be no champions crowned. Zeros dotted the scoreboards of the many novice bowlers.

For some players, the extent of their bowling experience before last week was on the Nintendo Wii, where players simulate moving a remote control-sized controller like they would a bowling ball.

But as School Without Walls freshman Kiana Livingston quickly discovered, the way her hand feels after holding a Wii remote isn’t exactly the same after three games with a real 13-pound bowling ball.

“Your fingers aren’t as sore,” she said, laughing.

At the far end of the bowling alley, Eastern Coach Randall White kept a watchful eye on the throwing form of his young team during practice. When freshman Shakira Reed, who signed up at the suggestion her volleyball coach and agreed to play because it was “fun,” rolled her dark blue bowling ball too far to the right of the lane, White reminded her to be mindful of the arrows on the lane.

So when her second throw of the frame knocked down all but four pins, White, a physical education and health teacher at Eastern who bowled on his high school’s club team in Greensboro, N.C., offered a high-five.

“All right, it rolled perfect,” he said. “You hit the arrows.”

In only two weeks, Washington Metropolitan senior Anika Arrington, who can effortlessly toss and curl a 15-pound ball for strikes and spares, has already established herself as arguably the DCIAA’s best bowler. Her 159 score in the first week was the highest total (and the talk among DCIAA officials). Her high score during the second practice was 152.

With an enrollment of only 126 students, according to DCPS figures, Arrington’s high school is the smallest participating in the sport. The only other option for female athletes at the Northwest school is track. But now, Arrington, who bowls every Saturday in the Silver Hill Strikers bowling league, gets a chance to represent her school when she otherwise wouldn’t.

“We should be good at something because we’re not good at basketball,” she said, smiling. “We should be good at something.”