BY Smriti Sinha
Since it began 10 years ago, a citywide fitness initiative known as CHAMPS has helped hundreds of middle schools start and develop competitive sports programs, paying coaches to organize after-school track and field teams, soccer games, tennis matches and swim meets. With a budget last year of $2.6 million, the New York City Department of Education-funded program helped 27,000 children dance, run and swing a bat.
But CHAMPS has remained only a modest source of funding for after-school sports, handing out a maximum of $6,000 to each school per academic year and supporting three programs per school at most. In Midtown West and elsewhere, principals and coaches say that the city’s foremost middle school phys ed initiative is insufficient to meet children’s growing need for physical activity, and leaves too much organizational leg-work and funding to individual schools.
When CHAMPS began in 2004, it became a starting point for middle school leagues that hadn’t existed before. Over the years, however, exercise science experts have come to believe that building sports teams for a few athletic students is less important than providing a comprehensive physical education program that can help counter the national obesity epidemic. One in every three American children is either obese or overweight, according to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, which observes September as National Childhood Obesity Awareness month.
“CHAMPS is a part of the solution but it’s not enough,” said Sarah Doolittle, an associate professor in the Department of Health Studies and Physical Education at Adelphi University in New York. “CHAMPS was the 20th century model that helped in creating competitive teams. It preceded the shift in people’s attention towards the importance of physical activity for everyone. The need of the 21st century is to provide opportunities to every kid who needs them.”
CHAMPS offers a framework for citywide physical education programs but leaves many gaps to be filled by individual schools. Chelsea’s LAB school was initially reluctant to join the program because the school would have to bear additional transportation costs to attend CHAMPS’ citywide league games. CHAMPS also does not handle the logistics of after-school sports, such as obtaining playing field permits, finding venues, buying equipment and paying referees. “We wished that there was an oversight on these things and that someone would take ownership and lead the program,” said Megan Adams, principal of LAB, half of whose 600 students play a sport.
At PS 126 in Chinatown, athletic director John DeMatteo has managed to iron out some of these problems. “CHAMPS is good for schools that are starting out but it is just an appetizer. It can’t be the whole thing because it’s not enough,” he said. “Schools should take the CHAMPS money and try and match that with their own to come up with something that is self-sustained.”
That is what DeMatteo did to transform PS 126 into the city’s most extensive middle school sports program, offering 25 different activities, including lacrosse, surfing and rock climbing. When he joined the school in 2002, its equipment room had a few basketballs and a rope. The former Wall Street equity trader has since added new programs every year and now oversees 47 different teams, some of them co-ed. Unlike at most schools, there are no tryouts or cuts, enabling 85 percent of the school’s 815 students to take part in organized physical activity.
DeMatteo believes that a phys ed teacher’s role doesn’t end with weekly classes. He started expanding the school’s sports offerings 11 years ago, taking advantage of the underused Murry Bergtraum Softball Field a block away from his school. With the New York Road Runners, he organized a competitive track and field league at the stadium (the Road Runners have since become a CHAMPS sponsor). DeMatteo had realized early that simply making students practice in their backyard after school wasn’t going to motivate them to develop long-term fitness habits: “The kids are going to be wearing their uniforms and practicing every day, but eventually they’re going to ask, ‘But who are we playing?’”
That led DeMatteo to start nine more leagues for sports such as flag football, boys’ baseball and soccer and girls’ volleyball and softball. More than 60 middle schools now participate in his flag football league. “A big factor in creating these leagues was that CHAMPS was paying money to the coaches,” said DeMatteo.
The leagues relieved many schools of a major organizational burden. “I credit John for what he is doing. It makes middle school sports look like a real thing,” said Adams, the LAB principal.
For The Clinton School in Midtown West, which is almost entirely dependent on CHAMPS for its after-school sports offerings, the program is not enough. As demand for CHAMPS programs increased, the Department of Education capped the number of sports it funds at each school. CHAMPS has expanded to fund more than 30 different activities citywide, but the program only pays each coach for 48 hours per season. “I would love to have more sports and offer at least two programs per season,” said Clinton School principal Jonathan Levin.
Adams, of the LAB School, agreed. “One of my frustrations with CHAMPS is that you can only choose up to three programs,” said Adams. The 14 sports that LAB offers cost the school $90,000, of which only $6,000 comes from CHAMPS. “It’s a very small drop in the bucket,” Adams said.
At a PS 126 flag football game in early October at the Bergtraum field overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, many parents said they chose the school for its emphasis on making physical activities part of a daily routine.
“We came to this school because of the coach,” said Russell Moss, whose son, Max, cheered from the sidelines, waiting for his turn to play. “Some kids need gross motor action to make them more susceptible to learning. It makes them feel more involved and included. It has worked really positively for us.”
The variety of activities at the school allows students to develop new interests such as surfing or frisbee, parents said, and doing physical activities together also builds a healthy dynamic between students from different grades. Students love the confidence of being on a team, and take pride wearing their jerseys and representing their school. “I like to tell my friends that we won a game and that our school team is the best,” said Max Moss, a seventh grader.
Several parents, coaches and school principals said that sports also motivate children to perform better academically because they know they won’t be allowed to play if their grades slip. Playing a match gives students something to focus on and look forward to, parents said.
It is unclear whether CHAMPS has improved children’s health or lowered obesity rates, because the Department of Education lacks the resources to measure its effects. Marge Feinberg, a DoE spokeswoman, said CHAMPS would welcome the opportunity to conduct a long-term self-evaluation, but “our budget currently goes to supporting programs in schools.” CHAMPS has never turned down a school that applied for funding, and now supports physical activity programs in 379 of the city’s more than 550 middle schools, Feinberg said.
Principals like Clinton School’s Levin anticipate that as more schools enroll with CHAMPS and its budget remains relatively stable, even fewer programs may be offered in coming years. Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of city students said they do not attend any physical education classes in an average week, according to a 2011 youth behavior survey by the Centers for Disease Control; 43.9 percent said that they spend more than three hours a day using computers for things other than school work.
At PS 126, DeMatteo has created a $55,000-a-year sports program that includes more students and measures their annual improvement while maintaining their great variety as well. He did a lot of running around to collaborate with Parks and Recreation for venues, and asked the YMCA and other non-profits, such as Arts and Sports, to help with his programs.
DeMatteo’s fundraising model has worked so far for the LAB school in Chelsea, which raises more than $80,000 a year for athletics through its PTA. Apart from money, the main problem is finding space to conduct the activities, especially in Midtown.“Every time we want to add a sport, we have to think, ‘Where is it going to happen?’,” said Adams.
DeMatteo approaches this problem creatively. On a recent day, some students exercised in a school hall, while others practiced rock climbing on the wall.