Sunday, July 27, 2003

Taft girls winning on court, in life

Basketball is more than a game for this team

By Andrea Uhde
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The teenage girls yawn under the warm morning sun that glows on Taft High School in the West End.

Rodnesha "Half Pint" Richardson, 14, snuggles up to her floral pillow, ready since the sun rose for her first trip outside of Cincinnati. The girls on the steps above her giggle about boys, clothes and sports. Rodnesha sinks her teeth into a sugary doughnut, hoping to get an energy burst for her long day.

Eight hours later, she and 11 of her "sisters" will be in Chicago.

Rodnesha, of the West End, is called "Half Pint" because she weighs just 91 pounds and stands closer to the gym floor than the basketball net. She is the newest addition to the Taft High School girls' basketball team.

Today, she and other team members will return from a four-day trip to Elgin, Ill., near Chicago. Junior varsity and varsity team members played in the USA Cup, one of the most prestigious basketball tournaments in the nation, and tried to impress college basketball scouts.

For these inner-city girls, such a trip was unimaginable just four years ago.

That was when the school folded the girls' basketball team, which ended the year with just a handful of players forced to play in uniforms handed down from the boys' team.

Today, the Taft girls' team has been transformed into a success story, due in large part to its passionate coach and a community that cares.

A slow turnaround

Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School, at 420 Ezzard Charles Drive, serves neighborhoods with mostly poor black and Appalachian residents. In recent years, it has been branded one of the lowest-performing Cincinnati Public Schools.

But two years ago, things began to change. Taft teamed with Cincinnati Bell, underwent $2 million worth of renovations and became a technological school offering seven computer labs and tutors.

The 750-student school still faces low graduation rates and attendance problems, but there has been improvement.

In 2002, the school reported a 60 percent increase in the number of students on the A-B honor roll. The number of dropouts fell from 25 percent in 2000-01 to 9 percent the following year.

The 30 basketball players - divided into freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams - are an example of how far the school has come.

Head coach Rhonda Craig (Class of 1988) and assistant coach Angela Harris in three years have been able to motivate students to raise their grades, perform community service and change negative attitudes.

Ten of 11 seniors have graduated during Craig's tenure as head coach. Nearly all of those graduates continued on to college with at least partial scholarships.

Plus, the team has succeeded on the court, with 14-7 and 17-3 records over the past two years.

The coaches aren't faculty members. They are paid a "few thousand" a year, Craig said, and that money goes toward team outings.

Each coach dedicates 25-30 hours a week to the team. That's on top of their full-time jobs at Hamilton Choices, a Queen City organization that cares for children with severe behavioral problems.

To raise money for the Chicago trip, Craig of Roselawn and Harris of Bond Hill took on third jobs at the Job Corps recreation department downtown.

"I don't think we'd be in this if we couldn't make a difference in a child's life," Harris said.

The coaches' philosophy

Many of the Taft players come from heartbreaking backgrounds: some have been homeless; others have been physically or sexually abused.

"Each kid has a story, and each story is more depressing than the story before," said Jan Fresh, one of 15 mentors to the girls.

Until Craig and Harris teamed up three years ago with a nonprofit organization in the West End to give the girls a learning center to study and eat after school, many came to practice hungry.

"Things that don't come out in therapy may come out (at the center)," Craig, 33, said. "Why are they scared to sleep at night? Because the police are going to raid their house. They come here as a safe haven. They can get away from it for a little bit."

That's why Craig and Harris formed the "sisterhood," which goes by the saying, "Different backgrounds, same sisterhood." The coaches give the girls a social scene that promotes healthy lifestyles and keeps them off the streets.

Each year, the team has an overnight retreat in Loveland.

They discuss "the curse" of teen pregnancy. Each year, someone involved with the team gets pregnant, Craig said.

"My challenge to this senior class is to get to college and not have a baby," she said.

The girls receive tutoring from mentors at college students.

Harris does "spot checks" in classrooms to make sure the girls aren't skipping.

"Education is paramount," said Craig, who, at 5-foot-5 is shorter than some of her players. "You can't have an F and play for me."

Her goal is for every girl to achieve a 3.2 grade point average.

"They want us to go to college as bad as we do," said senior Courtney Turner, 17, of Fairmont,who plans to attend Kentucky State or the University of Cincinnati on a scholarship after she graduates.

The coaches strongly rely on the philosophy that athletics are a ticket to a better life.

Craig knows this from personal experience. After she graduated Taft, her parents told her they couldn't afford to send her to college. So she used her skill as a basketball player to win a scholarship to the University of Akron, where she served as an assistant coach from 1993 to 1995.

Eight years after graduating college, Craig returned to Taft. She was shocked by what she saw.

"(As a student), we had built pride in the school," she said. "We all bled green and gold. (When I returned) it was horrible to see girls dropping out of school. Nobody was setting a bar for the kids."

Her first year, the all-freshmen team of 10 girls lost 17 of 19 games.

"The bleachers were always empty. "Even parents didn't want to come," Craig said.

Craig and Harris decided to do "field work" - go to the girls' homes and ask parents to attend games.

They also turned to community members and co-workers.

"We decided to talk to anyone who would listen," Craig said. They asked people to come to the games and cheer on a certain girl.

About 15 people, half of them African-American and half white, volunteered to spend their time with the girls. As more mentors came to the games, parents started to come, too.

Soon, games started selling out, and even the boys' sports teams started getting jealous of all the attention.

"What has grown out of it is such a blessing," Craig said. "These people became connected with these young girls."

The mentor program

On the outside, 18-year-old Clair Sinclair looks like a tough city girl. She's got a tattoo of her name on her shoulder, and she wears a stern look on her face when she's on the court.

She's not the kind of woman you'd expect to be close friends with a middle-aged white couple, like Jan and Ron Fresh of Lincoln Heights. She spends at least one day a week with the couple. Jan is her mentor. They go to movies, out to eat, "everything."

Her father, a 70-year-old former construction worker, had his leg amputated and is in a wheelchair. "He can't do the things he used to do for us," she said. "That's why I'm happy I got my mentor. It's another person involved in your life you can look up to and talk to."

Sinclair, of downtown, will be a senior this year. She plans to attend either Tennessee State or the University of Dayton and major in education and business.

College wasn't feasible before she joined the team her junior year. She had a C average, and some grades were even lower.

"I always came up with excuses as to why I wouldn't turn in my papers," she said.

After Craig told her she couldn't play in a big game because of one low grade, she shifted her priorities. Now, her report card lists As and Bs. "Coach Craig inspired me to push it," she said.

Since Sinclair started the team, "she's getting better grades, and she's been staying out of trouble - teachers haven't been calling me," said her father, William Sinclair.

Jan and Ron Fresh have hosted Clair Sinclair and a few of her teammates for Easter and Christmas dinners. They play cards or have swimming parties.

"We just do what normal families do," said Jan Fresh, who says mentoring has strengthened her faith in God. "We treat them like they're our kids. We've gotten out of it much more than we've given."

"It lets you know somebody understands," said player Shanee Jennings, 16, of Mount Auburn. Her mentor, Mary Vicario, 40, of Mount Airy, has been serving as a mentor for girls for three years. Vicario drove a van full of girls up to Chicago, where as of Saturday the team had lost their three games - with two remaining - against Amateur Athletic Union teams.

As long as they're happy and well-behaved - that's what matters to Craig.

"I can care less about winning a game," Craig said. "I want to win at the game of life. Each of these girls, that's another generation that's touched."


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