A Home for Squash
SL Green StreetSquash Center in New York City
By Dawn Klingensmith
espite its name, the after-school program StreetSquash has never been out on the streets. But until last fall, StreetSquash never had a place to call home.
StreetSquash is a free, New York City-based youth-enrichment program that combines academic tutoring, squash instruction, college preparation, community service and one-on-one mentoring. It serves low-income public-school students in the Harlem neighborhood. The program previously took place in YMCA and other host organizations' facilities.
As of September 2008, the nonprofit program has a permanent new home—the 18,000-square-foot SL Green StreetSquash Center, named for StreetSquash board member Steven L. Green. Housed in a mixed-use (primarily residential) building, the $9 million facility features eight international squash courts, four classrooms, a library and locker rooms.
"Now we have a place of our own where we're not worried about getting kicked off the courts to make room for others, or where we're studying in hallways and getting disrupted," said George Polsky, executive director.
Despite any such disruptions, StreetSquash has been remarkably successful from its inception in 1999. One hundred percent of participants graduate from high school. By comparison, the NYC Department of Education places the overall percentage at less than 60 percent. Eighty-three percent of StreetSquash graduates go to college.
StreetSquash is a long-term, intensive program. Students sign up in sixth grade and commit to seven years of involvement. "Making the team depends on commitment and attendance, not grades or athletic ability," Polsky said.
Participants meet four days per week (three school days plus Saturday) for three hours. They spend half the time playing squash and the other half on homework and academics with help from professional and volunteer tutors.
Polsky founded StreetSquash with 24 kids, modeling it after the SquashBusters program in Boston. He wanted to help at-risk children succeed academically and thought that squash, a racquet sport he grew up playing, would be an interesting way to reach them.
"A lot of kids aren't familiar with it, and kids like trying something new and different," he said.
The opening of the SL Green StreetSquash Center not only makes StreetSquash's the largest squash facility in New York, but it also enables the organization to implement new programs and expand its existing ones to include more students. For example, the launch of StreetSquash's new P.E. for Public Schools program coincided with the center's opening. This program brings Harlem school children to the center during the school day for squash instruction, aerobic drills and basic nutrition education.
Programming aside, the new facility's presence alone helps generate interest in StreetSquash. The New York firm Dattner Architects designed the building in such a way that it subtly yet compellingly aids in StreetSquash's public relations and marketing efforts. "When you're walking by outside, you can see into the courts, which creates interest and street buzz. It gives StreetSquash a presence in the community," said principal architect John Woelfling.
The sense of openness inside the facility is one of the design features Woelfling is most proud of. It's aesthetically pleasing as well as practical. "It brings daylight into the facility and creates a sense of connection to the outdoors," he said.
"It's important that from any one vantage point, you can monitor activity. There's a subtle security aspect to that," he added. "It also helps for a sense of community."
So, too, does the building's main stairway—a striking glass-and-steel structure that "gives a commanding view of the place," Woelfling said.
The stairway was one of a handful of high-impact design elements in an otherwise utilitarian facility. "We do a lot of public work where we don't have a lot of premium dollars to throw at things," Woelfling said.
To ensure these types of facilities are nonetheless unique and special, he works with clients to select a few splurges. Besides the stairway, the SL Green StreetSquash Center has artful, eye-grabbing lobby light fixtures shaped like giant beehives. The fixtures suit the space because a giant beehive of activity is just what the center is intended to be.
As StreetSquash participants rise through the ranks, college preparation becomes a key part of their after-school activities. They practice taking college entry exams, visit regional colleges and receive guidance from college admissions counselors.
But there's even more to StreetSquash than games and grades. Community service is another one of its core components. Each year, participants are required to participate in service projects, such as ladling soup to the homeless at the neighborhood soup kitchen or weeding the community garden.
In keeping with the idea of teamwork, StreetSquash emphasizes the importance of parental involvement to students' success. To that end, parents or guardians are required to attend at least three StreetSquash activities per year.
No sweat. Given everything going on at the new center, there's no shortage of options for parents to choose from.
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