Dot's charter school teams find legitimacy as they expand play in interscholastic competitions

All three Dorchester charter schools hold their games at the Kroc Center in Uphams Corner, and the ‘Friday Night Hoops’ attract hundreds of fans and create an electric atmosphere that has helped the athletic programs grow. All photos Jen Green/Jenny Frames Photography

Many charter schools in and around Dorchester have fledgling high school programs that have struggled for visibility and legitimacy. But teams from Neighborhood House Charter School (NHCS), Boston Collegiate Charter, and Roxbury Prep Charter have arrived on the scene this year with nearly every team now part of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletics Association (MIAA) federation, and all three landing basketball teams competing in the Division 5 state tournament this month for the first time.

NHCS’s boys’ team had its first-ever state win in beating Sheffield’s Mount Everett, 61-56, on Feb. 27, before losing in the second round to undefeated David Prouty Academy of Spencer. Roxbury Prep logged its first MIAA tournament win March 3 at Dorchester’s Kroc Center, 76-63, over Douglas, and shocked everyone Tuesday night by beating Hopkins Academy on the road, 59-55, to advance to the Elite 8.

Boston Collegiate’s girls’ team played Hanover’s South Shore Tech in the opening round and lost a competitive game, 41-31, while NHCS’s girls also qualified and lost in the first round last week.

For charter schools, it’s all an entirely new world. Most have only recently been allowed to expand their grade offerings to high school, with parents and students still believing that a charter school education includes sacrificing amenities common in the public and private schools, particularly sports.

“Our kids work as hard or harder than anyone else with lack of facilities and the timing of practices,” said David Duane, boys’ basketball coach and assistant athletics director at Roxbury Prep. “There are eight charter schools in the Division 5 tournament this year. If nothing else, that legitimizes everything we’re doing and trying to build while having rigorous academics for our student athletes.”

Roxbury Prep Athletic Director Dwayne Robinson is getting kudos for his early vision to create an “athletics destination” where kids could come to a charter school and play high-level sports. His teams were the first Boston charter teams to join the MIAA, with their football and basketball programs a few years ago.

That vision is shared and applauded by Massachusetts Charter Public School Association as officials look to compete for students in the city.

“Charter public school athletic programs have come a long way. Our schools are committed to doing all they can to offer students equitable access to opportunities, and that includes opportunities to participate and compete in athletics,” said Tim Nicolette, the association’s executive director. “I think the growth of athletic programs in our schools in recent years – and the great success of those programs – speaks to the commitment of our school leaders, teachers, and parents,” he added.

At NHCS, Scott Urban detailed how he was hired as athletic director five years ago when the Pope’s Hill school decided to expand to a high school – rolling out grade levels over a period of years. When he started, they only had eighth and ninth grades, so it was about building a foundation rather than winning. Two years ago, the first senior class was in place, and teams began to compete well in their Charter School league.

That’s when he and the others decided to further legitimize what they were doing, and get more opportunities, by joining the MIAA. This was the first year NHCS competed in MIAA play for all 11 of its sports.

“It’s been really neat to see a culture emerge in the school,” said Urban. “There was a time when I started where we lost every game, and we were a laughingstock. We didn’t have any buy-in at the school and people came in and made fun of the kids on the basketball team.

“Now there is buy-in from students and staff. The MIAA win [Feb. 27] solidified that we were meant to be here. At first, kids may have felt they didn’t belong there, but the win showed everyone they belonged and could hang with the rest of the state.”

At Boston Collegiate, its baseball team made the MIAA tournament last spring after winning their Charter School league championship, noted second-year Athletic Director Rhode Moise. “We all really came out of left field,” she said.

“It’s so nice to see our names in the tournament field…Having opportunities like the MIAA tournaments solidifies all that we’re doing. We want athletes at that level and athletes that can go on to college. We want everyone to know you can come to our school – a charter school – and athletically and academically you can thrive.”

The move to the MIAA is being bolstered by the culture all three schools have created in playing games at the Kroc Center in Uphams Corner. While practice spaces are difficult to find, with Roxbury Prep having to do so at 6 the Roxbury YMCA, games are almost exclusively held at the Kroc Center.

The athletic directors have created a ‘Friday Night Hoops’ event where the teams play one another, and hundreds show up for the games. The atmosphere is electric, and it contributes to buy-in from the community – as well as fast-tracking excitement for the regular season league.
That excitement is parlayed into the schools’ boys and girls teams now playing established City League teams like English High, Boston Latin School, and Madison Park High.

“We play all the city schools we can,” said Duane. “A lot of times in the past we went there, and it wasn’t a great game. Now we’re coming out and they’re going to get a fight. They know our kids can play at that level. It’s a matter of facilities and time and keeping things going year after year.”

There are challenges, to be sure, particularly in sports like softball and volleyball. Urban said they have had trouble fielding some teams because so many students haven’t been involved in youth sports. Many went to a charter school expecting not to be able to play sports, so it has been hard to generate interest.

Moise said she actively cultivates interest in Collegiate’s teams. First, she roams the hallways of the Mayhew Street school and builds relationships with students she believes have potential. Second, Collegiate uses social media actively to promote their teams.

“We celebrate our athletes well; that’s a big thing,” she said. “That allows the kids to stay in the program and for other kids to see what’s going on and to want to join and be a part of a team. At the end of the day, what matters to us is our kids are seen and visible and their names are out there.”

All three said that is the goal for growing their sports programs, that a student who is strong academically and athletically will be noticed and maybe earn a scholarship to play college sports. That will take time, all conceded, but they believe with their successes in this year’s MIAA Division 5 basketball tournament, they have found the roadmap to that destination.

“We have our public school and suburban school counterparts that have these incredible facilities and they’re practicing every day in them and we’re scraping by wherever we can find an opportunity, but we are here,” said Urban.

“We made some serious, serious noise in this Division 5 tournament this year and people are taking notice…We’re talking about a top 32-team listing that is almost half charters. That’s really cool.”

Caroline McCarthy (5) guards an inbound pass this season for the Boston Collegiate girls’ basketball team in a game at Dorchester’s Kroc Center. The team qualified for the MIAA Division 5 state tournament this month, only the second team from the school to do so.

Claire Borotolotto (4) of the Boston Collegiate girls’ basketball team drives down the lane against NHCS in a game this year at the Kroc Center. The team qualified for the MIAA Division 5 state tournament this month, only the second team from the school to do so.

NHCS’s Tavon Rhodes (8) looks for an opening in a game this year at the Kroc Center against rival Roxbury Prep Charter. Rhodes, who averaged 26.8 point per game this year, was a leader on the team. NHCS’s boys and girls basketball teams qualified for the MIAA state tournament, a first for the school, and the boys won the school’s first MIAA tournament game on Feb. 27.

NHCS senior Christian Jean Louis guards the middle in a game against Roxbury Prep at the Kroc Center.

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