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Winter 2012

The Ball Is in Their Court

Richard Polsky, M.A.T.'56, has long known that keeping the attention of kids isn't always easy. He first saw it as a middle school teacher in Long Island, just after he graduated from the Ed School, then again as a staff member at the Children's Television Workshop, where he used a machine called the Distracter to monitor whether preschoolers watching test versions of what would become Sesame Street were focused. These days, he sees it with the students he tutors twice a week at the Harlem-based nonprofit that his son, George, started a dozen years ago.

But this time, Polsky has something on his side: squash. Not the vegetable, but the high-speed racquet game played with a hollow rubber ball. His son's nonprofit, StreetSquash, not only helps students with schoolwork, but it also teaches them a game that allows them to channel all of their teenage energy. And it's intense. The students join the program in the sixth grade and commit for the entire academic year, for three days a week after school (academic tutoring and squash practice) and for a few hours every Saturday (more squash or community service and tutoring, if needed). Most of the 160 students stay with the program until they graduate seven years later.

StreetSquash also helps students get into college, starting with paid tutors and volunteers like Polsky, who help students with homework every week. Volunteers are also assigned a 12th-grader to closely mentor for the year.

"I tell him or her, 'If I'm working with you, we're going to be successful,'" says Polsky of his mentee. "You have to let them know what excellence is. At StreetSquash, every kid who wants to go to college goes." So far, every student who has completed the program has graduated from high school and has gone on to college.

Starting in ninth grade, students also get help figuring out which colleges are the best fit, and then learn how to apply, meet deadlines, and write the all-important essay. They practice for the PSAT and SAT. By senior year, in addition to being assigned a mentor, students get targeted college help from the staff.

"We help them go on interviews, prepare for open houses, and fill out financial aid paperwork. Everything from start to finish," says Sareen Pearl, Ed.M.'07, director of StreetSquash's College Prep Program. And "finish" doesn't mean help ends after the students graduate from the program.

"Staff from our Alumni Outreach Program make regular calls to students once they're in college, visit them on campus, help them find jobs at school, and help them navigate the school's resources," says Pearl. "Early on, we found that so many students were underprepared and struggled once they got to college. We asked, 'Why are we doing all of this — helping them get to college — if they're not able to complete their education?'" To date, about 85 percent of StreetSquash alumni are still in college or have graduated.

And it's this education that really matters, says George Polsky, who modeled StreetSquash on SquashBusters, a similar program started a few years earlier in Boston by another Harvard alum, Gregory Zaff, whom he met in 1997 when the two were involved with the U.S. squash team at the Maccabiah Games.

"Whether or not a student can hit a great forehand isn't important. Whether or not a kid ends up being a great squash player doesn't really matter," he says. "What matters is getting a great education."