Scoring Home Runs on the Field and in the Classroom

Scholar-Athletes in the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy Find an After-School Home in Wards 7 and 8
Photograph By
Christine Rushton

One of three playing fields at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on March 23. 

Dozens of elementary-school girls scatter onto the baseball diamond, some holding gloves and others carrying bats. A few wear outfits of pink and purple while others secure hip-length purses to their under-five-foot frames. The team of Wards 7 and 8 Nationals Youth Baseball Academy scholar-athletes came prepared to pitch, in style.

Tuesdays through Thursdays from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. during the school year and in six-week Summer Academy sessions, high school and college mentors, coaches, and volunteers give these third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders a place to learn about baseball and receive help on homework. The program operates out of an $18 million complex at 3675 Ely Place SE in Ward 7 with indoor batting cages, three outdoor fields, classrooms for study, and a “Field of Greens” garden. It serves around 36 students per grade, free of tuition – a maximum of 216 for the program. 

The scholar-athlete program was launched in October 2013 as a private-public partnership with the Washington Nationals Baseball team, the District, and several sponsors, said Tal Alter, the executive director of the academy. “We’ve designed the program to address the development needs that young people growing up in Washington, DC, have,” Alter said. “For a lot of youth living in Wards 7 and 8, those needs are even more evident.”

Alter grew up in Montgomery County, Md., where he played baseball through high school. With the academy he wanted to help build a program dedicated to supporting students in a holistic learning environment through sports, developing interests, and learning. The program’s 12 fulltime staff reflect the diverse backgrounds needed to inspire each student to discover their passions, he said.

Teaching the Whole Child

Some scholar-athletes don’t actually enjoy baseball but still spend their exploring other interests, said Bryant Curry, program manager for the academy’s parent and community engagement program. Lawny started with the program in 2013 and tags along with Curry inside and outside. The complex gives him a space to wander after school, he said. And he likes to play Minecraft and practice coding on the computer. “It’s a safe space where kids can be kids,” Curry said. “They can come through the doors and leave some of the worries and expectations they have in their home environment.”

Most of the mentors and coaches started working for child development programs early and see the value in dedicating time and resources to youth. Curry, a former charter plane pilot and native of Detroit, enjoyed moving his career to DC and is now getting the chance to see each student through the academy, from the day they walk in as third graders to when they finish. He also coordinates the academy’s family engagement programs to extend learning to the home. A cooking class starting on April 11 will help parents learn how to prepare healthy meals. The academy provides care for the children including a family-style meal. “I like the idea that even though it’s a baseball program, it’s not their sole focus,” Curry said. “They’re more focused on academics and developing the child as a whole.”

Curry also plans outings each month for scholar-athletes who show exceptional behavior and care for their teammates. In March he took one group to see “Zootopia,” the movie, and another to the White House Easter Egg Roll.

He watches many take on the challenge to work for what they want in life, something he observes while following these students from day one at the academy. “It’s an understanding that in order to be good at something, you have to work at it everyday,” he said.

Learning and Sharing with Mentors

Alter and the academy wanted to invite dedicated volunteer mentors into the program so that both the scholar-athletes and other older students could benefit from interacting. Alter approached several District universities and high schools – Gonzaga High School, Georgetown, Gallaudet – about spending a few hours each week at the complex.

When Alter first called Gonzaga High School, baseball coach Andy Bradley jumped at the idea. His team buses out from Ward 6 to Ward 7, Monday through Saturday. On Tuesdays through Thursdays they play with and coach the scholar-athletes. Other days, they use the nine-acre complex to practice. “The best way to learn is to teach,” Bradley said. “By our guys being able to teach throwing, fielding, and hitting I think they start to process that and it helps them as players.”

Gonzaga started an award system for good behavior with the academy students. Bradley recently remembered one scholar-athlete named Antoine who got the chance to sit in Gonzaga’s dugout and throw the first pitch at a game. “He threw the pitch, and it was a strike,” he said. “Everyone in the dugout came out to celebrate, and you could just see the look on his face.” It’s those moments that show the Gonzaga students how they can impact at-risk youth, he said.

After spending three years working with local schools and the Nationals baseball team, Alter said he hopes to continue expanding in the Ward 7 and 8 communities. He wants to add more staff and raise the level to eighth grade.

The organization runs a budget of roughly $3 million, as projected for 2016, and supports the tuition of every student. The funds come from 10-year donations from the District and the Nationals, but the academy also relies on fundraisers. In 2016 they hope to hold a Congressional staffer baseball game in an attempt to diversify funding, he said.

“We are just one positive resource in a community of people who care about young people growing up in their neighborhood,” Alter declared. “We consider that a tremendous responsibility.”

A scholar-athlete and softball pitcher takes the mound at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on March 23.
A scholar-athlete and hitter swings through a pop-fly at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on March 23.
A scholar-athlete and hitter makes contact with the ball at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on March 23.
A scholar-athlete and batter practices her game at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on March 23.