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Winning the game of life | Jubilee Reach using sports to motivate in Bellevue middle schools
As a working single mother of two children, Priscilla Islaba needed help balancing her schedule with that of her two school-aged kids.
The hours between the end of the school day and the end of her shift at the daycare where she works were a constant source of anxiety and without a male role model in his life, her 12-year-old son Yvann was beginning to feel the effects both at home and in the classroom.
His grades were slipping and his behavior at home and school had become a contentious, mostly due to a lack of motivation.
And at Highland Middle School, Yvann's story is far from unique.
There is such a thing as free lunch
Originally enacted in 1965 as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I is the nation's oldest and largest federally funded program and provides over $14 billion annually to school systems across the country that serve impoverished populations.
To qualify, 40 percent of students must qualify for the school's free or reduced lunch program.
In the Bellevue School District, the list of Title I middle schools is short: Highland.
Unlike others in the BSD, Highland also deals with a large population of students struggling to maintain grade-level scores in reading and math and also has one of the most diverse ethnic populations, with just under 60 percent non-white students.
Anissa Bereano (pictured below with Willcuts) has been the principal at Highland for four years and employee in the BSD for 18. She said her school is routinely tasked with doing more with less and that one of the philosophies that has grown from that hardship is the importance of giving students varying avenues to success.
"We have to make sure kids have the long-term desire to want to do well, because it's not always easy," she said. "When you're struggling, sometimes its easier to give up than put in that extra effort."
But as Jubilee Reach has extended its grasp into the BSD, students have struggled less and continuously grown their effort in the classroom.
Since beginning in 2006 with six core programs, the community outreach group has grown to serve physical, educational, social and emotional needs across 39 programs on topics from community gardening to ESL bible study.
With a former California gang member leading the charge, those services extended into sports in 2010.
The only man for the job
When he was only 16 years old, Carlos Willcuts knew he needed to change his life or risk losing what was left of it.
The youngster had lived with his father in Sacramento for his entire life and became involved in the gang scene at age 13. In three years, with the help of some unfortunate words from teachers, he transformed from well-intentioned youngster to full-fledged gangster.
"I remember a teacher telling me to just go home," Willcuts said. "They told me I would either end up in jail or shot. That stuck with me."
Then, one night as he was exiting a night club, Willcuts received the final assurance he needed that a life in the streets was not one he wanted to continue living.
"There was a rival gang there when we came out," he recalled. "I got pistol whipped."
On the ambulance ride to the hospital, Willcuts decided the time to make a change was upon him. With a renewed faith in himself and his ability to create a life beyond the one he had known, Willcuts volunteered himself to be "jumped-out" of the gang.
"I got beat up to leave," Willcuts said, affirming the notion that simply walking away from an underground organization is not a practical option. "I came up here (Washington), got baptized and started changing."
Even while still finishing his own diploma, Willcuts immediately began working with youth and has now been in the field for around four years, including the past two with Jubilee Reach.
In many ways his growth and that of Jubilee Reach's sports program have relied on one another.
"It wasn't this huge plan to do sports," Jubilee Reach director Tim Kuykendall said. "It just worked out so well we continued."
Adding sports became the obvious choice when dozens of Highland students began showing up after school for impromptu soccer matches.
Even during his days in gangs, Willcuts said he never succumbed to smoking or using drugs, mostly because he wanted to remain in good enough physical condition to play sports. In addition to providing an outlet for some of the pent-up energy and aggression, soccer became a way for Willcuts to belong to a productive team rather than the gangs he sought that family atmosphere from before.
"Kids want to be part of something," Willcuts said. "It can be a gang, or it can be a team."
With his own experiences in mind and an increasingly difficult group causing trouble for teachers and peers in the Jubilee Reach after-school program at Highland, Willcuts grabbed a soccer ball and corralled the kids onto the field, unknowingly laying the foundation for the revival of middle school athletics in the Bellevue School District.
After beginning as an informal group of around 10 kids kicking a soccer ball, the sports program has grown to serve over 600 kids in six Bellevue middle schools (over 15 percent of total student population) in basketball, soccer and flag football.
Teams have jerseys emblazoned with school names, referees and coaches for all contests and are able to compete against other BSD middle schools with a complete playoff system and city championship awarded in each sport. Kuykendall said it is within reason that the programs could reach up to 25 percent of the student population in grades six thru eight by the end of this school year.
"It doesn't happen if it isn't for Carlos," Kuykendall said. "You also have to give credit to that first group of kids. We had 11 soccer teams last fall but that doesn't happen if those first 10 kids don't stick it out."
When the district realigned to put ninth graders in the high schools in the late 1980s, the old junior high athletic model of mirroring the high school scene went by the wayside. As Jubilee Reach began closing the gap for the district's athletic programs (which currently offer volleyball, ultimate frisbee, badminton and co-ed track independently), Kuykendall, Willcuts and others decided to approach sports through an entirely different model than traditional interscholastic athletics.
Jubilee Reach calls it "coaching upside down" – an approach where showing respect and selflessness trump all else, even the final score.
Players are judged not on their ability to score goals or defend the paint, but instead by how they respect their opponents, officials and perhaps most importantly, anyone who may not meet the classic standard athletes are measured against.
Each team greets the opposition and officials as they arrive at the game and meet together after the contest for "atta-ways," a chance for players and coaches to praise the effort of their peers. Willcuts also uses the time to offer life lessons and give kids a chance to express themselves in a safe environment.
"Those talks can get really emotional," Willcuts said. "They start talking about how their parents aren't home and how that makes them feel. They're pouring their hearts out and because of that we become more than just a team."
The change has gone beyond the field of play as well, extending into the classroom and students' home lives.
Bereano recalled the first game day, when Willcuts required players wear a shirt and tie to school as an example of the pride they should feel in themselves and the team.
"We had all these boys looking super sharp but kind of awkward," she said. "They were all flooding to the office saying they didn't know how to tie a tie."
Willcuts' dress code on game days reflected the shifting mindset of the youngsters involved in the Jubilee Reach sports program at Highland. Bereano said now, she most often hears of slipping grades and behavioral issues when the season ends and students no longer have a positive outlet. She tracked reading scores during the past season and found that those in the program in many cases saw increased growth compared to their peers.
"That showed me there was some motivation going on as well," Bereano said. "Coach Willcuts always has the mentality and is consistent about doing well on and off the field. We've seen a difference."
A view of the future
Anissa Bereano isn't the only one seeing the changes taking place around her school.
Since joining Club Jubilee and taking part in the after-school sports program, Yvann Lara has consistently maintained above average grades and is an entirely different person, at least according to his mom.
"He is more able to trust people and he wants to show what he can do," Islaba said. "I never had that person to push him as a male role model. But now, with Carlos, I have that."
For Yvann, the motivation to succeed on the field, at home and in the classroom is at an all-time high. No longer a shy sixth grader without a direction for his future, Lara knows exactly what he wants for himself and his family in the years to come.
"I see myself in college," he said. "I'm going to need that to get a good job with good pay. Club Jubilee and Carlos are going to help me be one of the first in my family to go to college."