Baltimore is home to a unique nonprofit organization, Squashwise, which works with young student-athletes to develop their squash skills and achieve their academic goals. Squashwise uses the sport to keep kids focused and engaged on both academics and athletics.
Since its inception in 2007, Squashwise has worked with Baltimore city students in grades 6-12 to combine several academic programs with various squash and fitness activities.
There are currently 60 student-athletes in Squashwise. The program can accommodate a maximum of 70 given available facilities. Meadow Mill Athletic Club and John Hopkins University's Ralph S. O'Connor Rec Center donate court space.
"People look at us and initially think: 'Oh that's a cool sports team. It's the only public school squash program in the entire city,' and they think it's a neat sports program," Squashwise executive director and co-founder Abby Markoe said. "But when you look deeper into the mission, squash is only a part of it, and primarily, the squash is used to motivate the kids towards academic achievement."
Students attend the program two or three times per week, and are split into two groups -- one focusing on academics and the other on squash-related or fitness activities. As part of the program, the Squashwise staff works with its partner schools to ensure each student-athlete is excelling in the classroom.
The Squashwise partner schools are the Academy for College and Career Exploration and the Waverly Elementary/Middle School. Squashwise also consists of players from various high schools throughout Baltimore.
There is no screening process for new students entering Squashwise, Markoe said. The staff takes an individualized approach with students. Already successful students are expected to maintain their academic success. Students who enter the program struggling with academics need to show an effort to try to improve their grades.
To help promote hard work and academic success, Squashwise provides incentives to its players. The student-athletes who excel in the classroom are allowed to travel and participate in tournaments across the country.
"The tournaments are directly related to students' engagement with the program, attendance and school performance," Markoe said. "It's most importantly about the academic performance and secondarily about the squash."
Squashwise players participate in three tournaments throughout the year. The Midwest Championships at Kenyon College in Ohio are typically for the young players who get the experience of staying on a college campus. The National Individual Championships are held at Williams College and Amherst College in Massachusetts. The third tournament, held during the winter, is the National Urban Team Championships, held in rotating cities among the participating National Urban Squash and Education Association programs.
Another incentive is summer squah camps, which are offered at various college campuses.
Through various fundraisers and events, such as the annual Jack Laporte Squashwise Rally, Squashwise continues to stay ahead of its financial goals. The 2014 rally raised $245,000, an increase of about $80,000 from the 2013 fundraising total.
Using the groundwork laid by previous successful urban squash and education programs, Squashwise is nearing its goal of having its own facilities to take the organization to new heights, Markoe said. Ideally, the new facilities will have squash courts and special rooms for academic activities.
As Squashwise continues to grow throughout Baltimore, its student-athletes are leaving high school in position to follow their dream colleges and careers.
"Our overall mission is to ensure our students are prepared when entering the colleges and careers of their choice," Markoe said.