City, Philly pro teams aim to get more kids involved in sports

William R. Hite Jr., superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, speaks at a news conference announcing a task force on youth sports development.

When he was growing up in Virginia, youth sports were a main reason Bill Hite wanted to attend — and do well in — school.

Now, Hite presides over the school system in Philadelphia, a city where 325,000 school-age children live, many of them lacking access to youth sports opportunities.

On Tuesday, Mayor Kenney, Hite, and other officials announced a plan to organize and expand sports opportunities for kids citywide — not just as a way to develop athletes, but as a way to spur social change. The effort will be driven by partners including the city and representatives from all four of its major sports teams, as well as nonprofits.

“We need to be providing a system so that all young people have opportunities,” Hite said at a City Hall news conference.

Beth Devine, executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative, said the aim was clear: to “build the game plan for the biggest and best sports development system in the country.”

“Sports,” Devine said, “can change a person’s trajectory.”

Camera icon RAYMOND W. HOLMAN JR. / For the Inquirer and Daily News
Beth Devine, executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative, announces the formation of a task force to build a citywide network of youth sports development programs.

Otis Hackney, the city’s chief education officer; Michael DiBerardinis, its managing director; and David Montgomery, chairman of the Phillies, will lead a new task force to analyze the state of youth sports and youth development and to make actionable recommendations for building a citywide system of such programs. Such a network would cost millions, and the task force is also charged with making recommendations on how to pay for it — recommendations that will likely lean heavily on local and national philanthropy.

The group’s work is scheduled to be completed by June 2018. GlaxoSmithKline and other public and private sources donated to fund the task force.

Though the city already has an active network of youth sports development programs, much of the work is being done in silos, with little coordination. And there are disparities based on geography — some neighborhoods have robust offerings, and some have almost none.

When Hackney became principal of South Philadelphia High after a stint as principal of Springfield High in Montgomery County, people often asked him what the chief difference was between the two schools.

His response often surprised people.

“Water polo teams,” he would say: Springfield had four of them — boys and girls, varsity and junior varsity. South Philadelphia had a bare-bones program, with only traditional sports. Hackney worked to add field hockey and lacrosse teams to the city school’s roster of offerings, and he sees part of the task force’s charge to address those kinds of issues.

“The work here is not just about looking and seeing what’s available, it’s about access, whether they want to play basketball, or whether they want to play water polo,” said Hackney.

Research shows that youth who are involved in programs such as sports and other extracurricular activities perform better in school, earning better grades and missing fewer days of school. Such programs also lead to violence reduction and health promotion.

Kenney said the youth sports work is an important part of the city’s plan to get every child in Philadelphia involved in some kind of after-school programming.

“These are all opportunities,” the mayor said, “for young people to excel.”