Cradle of Education: How CityLax is using Lacrosse to Develop Better Students

Building Better Outcomes for Underserved Kids through Lacrosse in New York City

Make no mistake. Connor Wilson and John Moser of CityLax are very enthusiastic about lacrosse. But, talk to them for any length of time, and they’ll be quick to remind you that the sport is only a means to an end for their program—that is, a means to teach personal responsibility, teamwork, and life lessons that can be applied off the field of play.

“Any sport, any activity, provides opportunities for people,” says Wilson. “We know lacrosse, so we want to provide that opportunity, but it’s great to see other programs growing in this field as well.”

Origins and Growth

The first program was at A.P. Randolph High School in Harlem,” Wilson explains. “The program was started roughly 12 years ago, by Mat Levine. “It took off from there—there were five or six high school lacrosse teams at that time, and A.P. Randolph was among those. Over the years, more and more programs have been added—this year, we’re up to 52 [high school] varsity teams.”

That works out to about five girls and five boys teams per Borough, across all of New York City.

“CityLax supports over 70 teams, all told, when you include middle school teams,” adds Moser. “Now, virtually any kid who wants to play at the youth or middle school level has a place to go play, boys and girls.”

“It’s been crazy growth—and it’s a lot of fun to see,” Wilson says. “It’s also neat because it harkens back to the days when there were 20 men’s lacrosse clubs in the Borough of Brooklyn, back in the early 1900s.”

The way that CityLax has accomplished this shows a strong understanding of the landscape and a savvy use of resources. Though the CityLax team numbers less than 10 full-time employees, their reach extends across the largest metropolis in the United States because they connect with teachers in each school district—those teachers double as coaches for CityLax-backed programs at their schools.

It’s an approach that serves a double purpose: First, given the rules of the PSAL (New York’s Public School Athletic League), head coaches must hold a valid teaching license with the Department of Education—so, working with existing teachers means CityLax avoids the hurdle of bringing on coaches without the necessary credentials; second, since school athletic budgets are generally limited, the CityLax team focuses on fundraising in order to provide equipment at no cost to the schools.

“Through grants, and donations, we’re actually able to fund a lot of these PSAL teams every year,” says Wilson.

Makes sense, right? Well, yes, but it’s not that simple, either—ask Wilson what a ‘typical’ day looks like, and there’s no straightforward answer.

“Sometimes, you go into a high school, and they’ve got someone who played college lacrosse and wants to coach,” he says. “Sometimes the school will even fund the program, so there’s not much extra stuff to do other than some grant money and some clinics. Other times, it’s about educating a teacher who has never played lacrosse before, and helping them take the reins.”

For that reason, CityLax takes preseason weekend training sessions for athletes and coaching clinics very seriously. “We’ll pay for anybody to go out and get U.S. Lacrosse coaching certifications done—we want people to feel empowered, and learn how to coach this game the right way. And we’ve also found that that’s a sustainable model.”

The PSAL season for lacrosse is in the spring, and it’s relatively short, but CityLax programming extends throughout the year in the form of clinics, and the work of raising funds to support all their programming is more than enough work to fill anyone’s schedule.

The important part, though, is that it’s working. Not only for older kids, but also, the growth at the high school level has paid dividends for younger kids.

“You see more youth lacrosse now on Staten Island, because now there are high schools that have teams—it’s a sport they can keep playing as they grow up. That’s also true of Brooklyn.”


Challenges and Success Stories

One of the biggest challenges we face is getting measurements from the schools,” Moser explains. “But one of the things we do know is that, the couple measurements we do have look really good. Last year, 99% of the student-athletes who were on [CityLax] teams graduated from high school, which is a lot better than the citywide average, which I think is in the 70–80% range.”

That academic performance is a driving force behind the programming, but reaching more kids (in New York City, as well as through their expanded programming in Albany, New York), and developing their lacrosse skills earlier is also a priority, as Moser hopes that with more middle school programming, student-athletes may be able to become skilled enough athletes to obtain athletic scholarships to college.

“It’s a hard sport to pick up in four years and be good enough to play in college—it’s not impossible, but it’s hard,” Moser says. “It requires a lot of skill.”

He continues: “Another reason for starting earlier is that we’ve had kids who might start playing off and on in their freshman or sophomore year of high school, and have the potential to play at a Division III level, but their transcripts from their first years of high school aren’t good enough to make them competitive—even if they get As and Bs as juniors and seniors.”

For that reason, Moser hopes that CityLax programming can help budding student athletes understand the importance of their academic performance from the start, and open more doors.

Because, in the end, it’s about extending opportunities to those who might not have them otherwise.

“We had a young lady, who is still in college now, who told us the story of her freshman and sophomore year in high school—she lived in a car for the first two years of high school. She’s now on a four-year scholarship to play college lacrosse.”

Working at UpMetrics, we hear a lot of compelling stories about youth and community programs and the great work they do. But some of them are truly jaw-dropping.

“I have no doubt that that young woman is going to make her mark on this world,” Moser says.

Amen to that.

Story by Bryan Kitch, for UpMetrics | Data for Good. Photos courtesy of CityLax.

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