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Squash in the City

Abby Markoe, Executive Director of Baltimore Squash Wise. Photo by Arianne Teeple
Abby Markoe, Executive Director of Baltimore Squash Wise. Photo by Arianne Teeple
Things were pretty quiet at Woodberry’s Meadow Mill Athletic Club on a recent Monday afternoon.
That was until a visitor heard laughter mixed with the thwack of small rubber balls hitting the wall on squash courts. It was practice time for the kids in Baltimore SquashWise, a nonprofit that mixes academic and social support with instruction in a sport that you don’t normally associate with Baltimore City school students.
“When I first told my friends I was playing squash, they thought I was talking about a vegetable,” says James Doggett, 14.  “Being in this program has helped me become a better student and a better person,” says Deandre McNair, 15. 
Nearly 40 boys and girls from five Baltimore City public schools participate in SquashWise, part of a growing national urban squash movement. They range from the 6th to 12th grades. Launched in Baltimore four years ago, it has counterparts in 10 other cities, including New York, San Diego, Philadelphia and Boston. SquashWise and other nonprofits say these programs boost academic performance by giving kids an outlet for their energy and instructors who motivate them on and off the court.
SquashWise hopes to triple the number of students in its program within the next five years, founder and Executive Director Abby Markoe says. It will launch a capital campaign, reaching out to foundations, individuals and corporations so it can accommodate more kids and have its own squash facility with dedicated courts, classrooms and administrative space. Having a dedicated facility has run between $1 million and $7 million in other cities, Markoe says. 

“The urban squash movement is beginning to change the face of squash in the US,” Markoe says. “It’s moving it away from a Northeast prep school sport. It’s making squash cool among inner-city kids.”

A smashing start 

Markoe's own interest in squash started in the eighth grade while growing up near Princeton, New Jersey. She continued to play as a student at George Washington University, becoming co-captain of the women’s team her senior year when the school made squash a varsity sport.  After coming to Baltimore in 2004 for graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, Markoe realized the squash bug was still in her system and got to know Peter Heffernan, squash director at Meadow Mill Athletic Club.
Working with Heffernan to help Johns Hopkins begin men’s and women’s club squash teams, Markoe spent a year learning about the urban squash movement and programs in other cities before starting SquashWise. She secured office space at the Meadow Mill complex on Clipper Mill Road adjacent to the athletic club with its 14 singles and two doubles squash courts.
Though the oldest SquashWise students haven’t graduated high school yet, the nonprofit has data to show that it is making an impact. It says that three-quarters of its students have improved their science grades and nearly two-thirds have higher math grades since joining the program. SquashWise students have a one-third higher homework completion rate than their peers.

"Another voice"
Melissa Lake, who teaches English at the Baltimore Civitas School, says the program’s instructors offer kids academic encouragement they may not otherwise receive at home.
“It’s another voice their ear pushing them to try harder in school,” says Lake, who teaches about 15 middle school students in SquashWise. The program makes them more focused in school because they have something to look forward to at the end of the day and an outlet for their energy.
Students participating in the other urban squash programs have a 100 percent high school graduation rate and 93 percent college graduation rate, according to the National Urban Squash and Education Association in Boston. Urban squash students have received $10 million in private high school and college scholarships, the association says.
SquashWise participants practice a minimum of three days each week for two and a half hours at a time. Team meetings precede practice and new captains are elected each month by the participants.  All students must commit to the SquashWise PACT of Preparation: attendance, conduct and teamwork. SquashWise staff scores each participant on how well he or she lives up to the ‘PACT.’
The SquashWise students also play matches against Baltimore prep schools such as St. Paul’s School and Gilman School.  “Kids from different parts of Baltimore are now connecting through squash,” Markoe says. They also travel to other cities to play in tournaments. 
Looking towards the future, Markoe is excited about plans to add students in the 4th and 5th grades as it expands.
“I’ve seen how much this opportunity can take kids to another level,” Markoe says.  “It’s inspiring to see our kids mature through the program.”
SquashWise's McNair is probably feeling pretty cool right now, having won the 2011 Future Star Award from the National Urban Squash and Education Association. About 1,000 urban squash participants were initially considered for the award.
Says the Civitas student, “I want to study at a good college and become a veterinarian.”
Paul Sturm coordinates the Baltimore Nonprofit Leaders Circles and teaches in the Nonprofit Management Program at Notre Dame of Maryland University. He lives downtown where he feeds his addiction to crab cakes and Berger Cookies. His last story for Bmore was titled Development with a Mission? Possible


Photos by Arianne Teeple

Abby Markoe, executive director of Baltimore SquashWise. 

Renard Gardner III, 14, of Baltimore practices with SquashWise at Meadow Mill Athletic Club in Baltimore. 

Nytiece Powell, 14, of Baltimore during practice with SquashWise at Meadow Mill Athletic Club in Baltimore.

Students practice with Squash Wise. 

Tayler St. Clair, 14, right, and Eryn Rich, 14, left, practice with Squash Wise. 

Clinton Cook, 11, right, and Anahja Powell, 13, left, demonstrate a classroom setting at Squash Wise.

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