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UC Berkeley football players help high school athletes tackle homework, consider college
29 Mar 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- The University of California, Berkeley, may be an easy stroll from Berkeley High School, but many young athletes there think higher education is beyond their grasp.

Yet, as spring football practice starts up, a couple dozen UC Berkeley athletes - most of them football players - are teaming up with football players from Berkeley High, not only to help improve the younger athletes' grades, but to introduce them to the wide world of educational opportunities.

Professor Herb Simons is the driving force behind a new course at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education called "Teaching One-on-One: Principles of Tutoring and Mentoring."

Simons, a sports fan who chairs the Language, Literacy and Culture division of the education school, hopes for a big win connecting Cal football players interested in education careers with the teenagers they mentor and tutor, kids at academic risk.

Each fall, said Simons, Berkeley High's freshman football team begins with about 50 players. The roster dwindles to half by the end of the season because so many players fail to maintain the minimum 2.0 grade point average required for athletic participation.

"One reason for this lack of academic success is that the joy and excitement of sports participation and its extrinsic rewards are hard to match in the academic domain, where the rewards are few and far between, especially for students doing poorly," wrote Simons in a proposal for his course.

So, twice a week, about a dozen Berkeley High athletes are bussed to Cal's Memorial Stadium, a local landmark where, for decades, many athletes' dreams have taken shape and come true. Sometimes, the teenagers and their tutors saunter off in pairs to study in the stands above the field, or hunker down in a coach's office or in the locker room. There, they absorb the atmosphere of collegiate athletics while digging into academics.

Most often, UC Berkeley's football players sit with their young counterparts at round tables, turning the stadium's Club Room into a classroom.

Under the watchful gaze of a stuffed bear poised majestically on his hind legs, with posters of teams and play action dotting the walls, they work on study skills and textbook reading strategies. They learn time management techniques, goal setting, better writing skills and how to anticipate test questions. Their reading comprehension is boosted through previewing, reading and reviewing.

"It's a good way for our guys to see how they can affect someone's life," said Courtney Wolf, 24, head manager of the UC Berkeley football team and a former field hockey player. "For some of them it hits home: This kid could be me."

In a focus group after the same course last fall, one tutor said he bonded with his young charge because they shared the experiences of high school and football. Another tutor advised his high school counterpart to concentrate on grades first, then football. Still another tutor said he wished he'd had a program like this in high school.

Reading materials on athletics help the young students relate not just to the tutor, said Simons, but to the academic subjects of the program. Assignments may include reading Sports Illustrated features or analyzing articles about the value of competitive sports.

One recent sunny afternoon, six of the Berkeley High students showed up for their academic practice.

It's hard to compete with other sports activities and the lure of a spring-like day, said Bruce Smith, a graduate student and former high school English teacher who is the course liaison with Berkeley High.

Just getting information about the program distributed to students in a large school like Berkeley High is tough.

Even so, said Smith, the program is making inroads.

"Academic achievement is more important to a lot of these guys than it was when they started," Smith said, noting that the youths now have tangible role models for what they hope to become on the playing field - and in a university classroom.

The course is supported financially by a grant from the University of California Office of the President and the Berkeley Pledge.


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