The question of how to motivate young people to be more engaged in education in the United States has been raised for decades. Standardized tests, core curriculum, better use of technology, life experience, micro-schools focused on trades, charter schools have all been bandied about, implemented and criticized in one way or another without any clear solution.
However using a common interest as a basis for all programs is becoming more and more accepted. The arts, film, design, even sports business, have started to gain a foothold as a core theme for small pockets of students who may thrive in a customized environment where their passion for a topic will increase learning. In New York City, at least two high schools have adopted sports business as such a core, The High School For Sports Management and the Business of Sports School (BOSS). Now going to such a school does not mean you are being groomed to be a general manager or a groundskeeper. These micro-schools use the business of sports to teach core subjects. The students may now have a huge sports acumen, they come in via the same lottery system that places any student in a high school in New York, and they are subject to all the same standards and practices as anyone in the New York City Public School system. The difference is that their core classes have a bit of a sports stance, and some of their additional classes delve more into sports business. The results have been impressive.
At the helm since the inception of the BOSS School in New York is Dr. Josh Solomon. We caught up with Dr. Solomon to talk about the unique approach BOSS has and how it has worked motivate and inspire a growing legion of young inner-city students.
The Business of Sports School is now well into its second half of a decade in existence, what has been the biggest positive change in the students since day one?
I have been excited to see how BOSS has grown in its first six years. We are starting to get better known among students and parents — applications were up 23% to over 1,700 for next year’s entering Class of 2019. Some of the programs we have started have really taken root. One area is mentoring. Many of our students enter high school literally knowing no one who works in a professional or corporate environment. Through a program called iMentor every single student is matched with a mentor who is a college graduate and works in the sports or business community. Those relationships have now developed over two years and are as important to our students’ education as their classwork. Similarly, Big Brothers Big Sisters has matched many of our upperclassmen and women with mentors from the NFL and CBS. These organizations provide crucial support to these older students as they go through the stressful process of choosing and applying to colleges. Our Morgan Stanley mentoring program through PENCIL is a third example of a well-designed program that supports our juniors and seniors with job readiness skills, from interview training, industry panels, and even dressing for success. We all know that for success in your career, it is not only what you know, but who you know, and we want to make sure that our students start their careers with the beginnings of a professional network.
How has having a curriculum that involves various pieces of sports business tied to traditional subjects helped these kids academically?
Many of our students come into high school several years behind grade level, yet we need them to graduate ready to handle college-level work. We have integrated sports business and some of the complex issues into all facets of the curriculum in order to both provide a well-rounded perspective on the industry, but most importantly to engage the students in the material. Students study in biology the impact of steroids on the body and the physiology behind common sports injuries. But, the primary focus on sports business is in the 3½-year business sequence that students take, culminating in creating their own virtual firm (this year’s firm, Virtual Fitters, sells sports and other fashion). At heart, we are a business school. Our students graduate with solid classroom business knowledge, experience in internships and other job-based training most schools don’t offer, and a New York State Career & Technical Education Diploma in Business.
If you had to pick one or two “success” stories, who would it be?
I am very proud of how our students have done in the college application process. My favorite day of the year is in January, when the alumni come back to talk to the current students about the opportunities and challenges in college. To see our students thriving in sports management and business programs at UMass, St. John’s, Ohio State, Cornell, LIU, and many other great colleges is my indicator of success.
You now have a gym to call your own, how much does athletics play into the lives of the students now vs. when you started?
Sports was always an important part of our students’ lives. Of course, our students are not only big sports fans but also love to play sports. And, high school is often the final opportunity most of us have to play competitive, organized sports. We now have 16 varsity and JV teams in baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball, handball, bowling, track, soccer, and flag football, and we would like to expand further into other sports, such as wrestling. We have also developed rigorous codes of conduct and academics for all of our athletes who play in the Public School Athletic League, so that our sports programs engages students in both athletics and academics.
Do you still have an issue with people thinking it’s a school just for athletes?
Some people come to our school to learn about business and some come because they are athletes or big sports fans. Frankly, I think some 8th grade students choose Business of Sports School because their favorite class in middle school is gym. Our job is to show them, no matter why they chose BOSS, that they may not end up playing in the NFL or MLS but for every one job on the field, there are thousands behind the scenes in advertising, operations, sales, IT, entrepreneurship, and many other aspects of the very large sports industry. They don’t realize until they see all the opportunities here that so many people use their business, journalism, and academic skills to stay close to sports action for their whole lives.
When someone like Adam Silver comes by, what does it mean to the students and the teachers?
We love it when a major executive like Adam Silver comes to the school. It was especially funny because the commissioner was on the cover of several magazines (SBJ, ESPN), so he was displayed around the school and then, there he was in our gym talking to our students with LeBron and Curry. I think it shows the students and teachers that even for people who are world-famous; they think that being with local kids is important. They spent money and time investing in the school and the visit was an important part of the All-Star weekend.
There was a lot of talk about replicating the model in other cities, have you seen that at all yet?
When we first opened and had some big media stories, we had several visitors looking at replicating the school. I remember Derrick Coleman came about Newark and Ron Rice brought a group from Detroit. I have not heard so much talk about it recently, but I hope that other education reformers continue to start similar schools. It seems to me like a model that would work in any urban district, especially one with professional and college sports teams.
What remains your biggest challenge?
Our challenge remains the same as it was on day one: preparing all of our students for success in college. We accept students without looking at past performance, simply based on a desire to come to our school. Students arrive with a range of needs and skills. The vast majority of our students come from homes below the federal poverty line, from all five boroughs of New York City. One-quarter of our students are classified as special education and another 15% are current or former English Language Learners. Many will be the first in their families to attend college. This year, we added a mandatory SAT program because we want to make sure that our students’ SAT scores are competitive with their fellow college applicants. We continue to focus on making the academic work required in every course best reflect the rigor of college.
As someone who has been there since day one, where would you like to see the school be when the tenth anniversary comes about?
I have had the same vision since day one. BOSS will be one of the top unscreened, small public high schools in the City. We will continue to attract students from across New York regardless of past performance and then provide the opportunity for substantive classroom and on-the-job learning and a chance at a great college business program. My vision for the 20th anniversary is that many of the industry executives who come speak to students or act as mentors will be BOSS alumni from these first few graduating classes.
Joshua Solomon is the founding principal of Business of Sports School (BOSS), a public Career & Technical Education high school that opened in September 2009 in Manhattan. BOSS is the only sports business-focused high school to be approved by New York State to offer New York State certification in Entrepreneurship and Business Management. Last year, over 1,700 8th grade students applied to the lottery to join BOSS’s freshman class. He has been a teacher (Math and Japanese) and administrator in the New York City Department of Education for the past sixteen years. In 2006, he co-founded East-West School of International Studies, a public middle/high school in Queens focused on increasing students’ knowledge of global cultures and languages. Prior to entering the New York school system, he worked in investment banking at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York and Tokyo. Dr. Solomon received his B.A. and M.B.A. from Harvard University and completed an Ed.D. and a Cahn Fellowship for Distinguished Principals at Columbia University Teachers College. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Geula, a banker at Barclays Capital, and three children.