HURST, APRIL 2017 — It’s testing season in public schools. From Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams down to statewide standardized tests, this is the time of year when students camp out under fluorescent lights and push through page after page of multiple-choice questions. It can be exhausting and depressing; a true grind for even the most diligent students.
Imagine stepping into that environment as an outcast. Speaking a different language at home than the one that’s being used to determine your value as a student. Thinking that your skills are of no value to the people around you. Feeling misplaced for half of every waking day.
Now you’re a soccer player at Hurst Junior High.
Another Culture, Another World
Roughly three out of every five students at Hurst Junior High come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. About one in ten students are still learning English. Those numbers are slightly above average in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford School District, but right on par with the other Junior High Schools that participate in an intramural soccer program that runs throughout the Spring. Together with Central and Euless, Hurst takes part in “Liga HEB” for one reason: it helps the students.
Now in her second year as principal at HJH, Liz Russo is one of the league’s biggest advocates. She says that it serves young men who are good kids, but who need a little motivation at school.
The majority of students in Liga HEB speak a language other than English at home. Many have working parents and are left to their own devices during the day. None of them participate in extracurricular activities offered through the University Interscholastic League (UIL). If they did, they wouldn’t qualify for the intramural program, which is run in partnership by 6 Stones and HEB ISD.
Soccer is their passion. Their skill. The place where they excel. But there is no official program for boys at the junior high level in HEB ISD.
“They want to put that uniform on because it gives them a sense of pride. They’re skilled athletes, and they get to show off their skill,” Russo told 6 Stones. “Even if I struggle with the English language, I’m good at soccer. I don’t have to struggle on the field. Because it builds confidence there, it trickles over into the classroom.”
Faces in the Crowd
With a school population that hovers just over 1,000 and an abundance of official sports and clubs, Russo says it’s easy for students to feel irrelevant. Soccer gives her staff a touchpoint with a slippery student population.
“It’s easy with 1,100 kids to get lost in the crowd. Especially when you don’t have a different place to connect or a specific adult that you know is going to check on you every day. And with intramural soccer, those coaches are checking on those kids every day.” Russo said.
“It sets a culture that we care. That we have something exciting for you. Our intramural soccer games are better attended than probably any other sporting event we have at Hurst Junior High… it’s built a culture around it that involves more than just those thirty or forty boys that are actually out on the field playing.”
The Hurst principal says that the HJH coaches — both of whom are teachers during the school day — have even uncovered deeper issues through the program. Occasionally, a student will confess to their coach that they’ve been missing school to take care of their siblings. With both parents at work, someone has to stay home. That duty usually falls to the oldest child. But once the coaches are made aware of the situation, Hurst’s administrators can contact the family to connect them with support services. In that way, soccer is helping the school to build a trust that goes deeper than a few dozen students.
Free to Be Kids
Not every student in Liga HEB comes from desperate need, but each of them shares one thing in common. They love soccer, and they want to represent their school while playing it. To earn that right, students in the league must maintain their grades and attendance record while steering clear of disciplinary issues. Russo says that all of those metrics trend in the right direction for soccer players at Hurst. And not just because it’s required of them.
“I think the coolest thing I’ve seen is that [this program] gives those kids a place to belong. And we know that when kids are involved in extracurricular activities, they want to come to school. So then, because they want to be here and we require that they are passing and working hard and staying out of trouble, all of those things are impacted,” she said.
“They’re already great kids, but they’re more focused academically. They are staying out of trouble. They are coming every day. You have to be here to practice and to play. So it has a huge impact on helping them get involved.”
With everything these students go through — the language barrier, the feeling of isolation, the strain of economic disadvantage — soccer is a place of refuge. A place where they can shine.
Kevin came into the league during the final weeks of the 2016 season. He missed almost every game because he was serving a 60-day suspension for hitting another student. During our interview, he confessed that his anger used to get the best of him. Soccer isn’t the solution to his problem, but it certainly helps.
“My Dad, he kind of set us to it; to always play [soccer]. He didn’t force us, he just made us love it,” the Raiders United midfielder said. “It’s the only thing I like to do without getting angry. When I play it, I calm down because no one is bothering me and I can do what I want with the ball.”
Sometimes, a student just needs to know that they have control of something in their life.
A year removed from his disciplinary issues, Kevin credits most of his success to maturity. As he’s aged, he’s learned to control himself and keep his impulses in check. Exactly the kind of discipline they teach at soccer practice, according to Russo.
“I believe, and I know the coaches do, that we’re really teaching them life skills. It may look like intramural soccer right now, but ultimately what we are teaching them is how to interact appropriately, how to handle it when we lose a game or when I don’t get what I want,” she said. “And, again, because they’re here every day, they’re learning. Which is what school is all about.”
Raiders United lifted the Champions Cup at the end of the 2017 season. But they were winners long before that.