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Local Nonprofit Shapes Up Philadelphia Kids

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Philadelphia has notoriously been struggling with its public school systems in recent years. A lack of funding has resulted in serious cutbacks to vital functions, culminating in the passage of last year's infamous "doomsday budget."

Many students and families have expressed a certain sense of hopelessness in the face of this dire situation, and a danger of this sentiment is that it has the potential to result in increased dropout rates for Philadelphia students.

A recent investigation has found that nearly one in ten students dropped out of Philadelphia public schools last year.

Whatever the cause, it is certain that keeping students in the classroom is now more than ever a major priority for the city's education advocacy groups and facilities.

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An Active Approach

One local nonprofit organization is taking this issue on directly to great effect, and they are doing so using what may not be the most obvious method.

SquashSmarts is a local academic and athletic mentoring program and it seeks to stimulate Philadelphia public school students and build their sense of commitment and drive using an unlikely but ultimately ideal tool: the game of squash.

Founded in 1995 in Boston, MA and subsequently spreading to Philadelphia and New York, SquashSmarts seeks out dedicated students from fifth to twelfth grade and recruits them on a seven-year commitment basis, building a team as well as providing participants with intellectual and inspirational guidance.

Practices include mentoring players based on what SquashSmarts calls its Five Pillars: academic support, squash instruction, fitness and nutrition, personal achievement, and leadership.

"I like [the program] because it's interacting -- you get to meet new people and try new things," says Marcedes, one of SquashSmarts's roughly 120 participants in the city.

The program is organized under The National Urban Squash and Education Association, SquashSmarts's New York-based umbrella organization formed in 2005 and headed by executive director Tim Wyant. The NUSEA is working on expanding to five new cities in the coming years and arranges inter-city tournaments between affiliated programs.

SquashSmarts's stated mission is to keep kids in school, in shape and on track for graduation, and it is achieving this mission admirably. By building a support base for inner-city youths, the group has been able to provide "a team, a family, a safety net and a sense of belonging." This presence has proved vital to the effort to ensure Philadelphia kids remain on a path to success, and it will only grow from here.

To learn more and to donate to SquashSmarts, visit the group's Philadelphia website.

By Bessam Idani

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