Practice times at Lewis Center frustrates BPS student-athletes, who train in school hallways instead

Kalvin Johnson turns a corner in a hallway at TechBoston Academy (the former Dorchester High School) during track practice last Friday afternoon, passing by a tribute to former President Barack Obama who visited the school in 2011 and cited its “world-class education” program.

Dorchester’s TechBoston Academy indoor track team began rigorous practices last week, but the athletes won’t set foot on a real track until their first winter meet, this despite the existence of a world-class indoor track in the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury that is supposed to have practice periods set aside for Boston Public School (BPS) student-athletes that are not available at times that work for them.

In the meantime, team members and their coaches are making do until the formal competition by using their 99-year-old Codman Square school’s hallways and stairs as their practice facility, sprinting at full speed down corridors, bursting through doorway separations, and, sometimes, running into custodians or other students. It’s risky all around.


Above, Yevegueny Glemaud bursts through a doorway en route to the finish line by the principal’s office. Seth Daniel photos

When the Lewis Center, built on land sold to the state by the City of Boston during the Flynn Administration, opened in 1995, officials said there was an understanding that it would benefit the community of Boston first, which the public took to mean that indoor track athletes from Boston would be training and competing in one of the premier such facilities in the nation situated in their backyard.

Slowly, those precious practice and competitive times have evaporated. Demand for meet times at the center by suburban schools has increased greatly as participation in track has tripled with no accompanying growth in facilities statewide. Athletes from city schools like TechBoston Academy are told they have to begin packing up by 3:30 and be out of the center by 4 p.m. so that suburban schools can start their meets by 4:15 or 4:30 p.m.

Even with that, one suburban coach notes that the lack of a sufficient number of adequate facilities across the state means that his students and those of other schools outside Boston are also running along the corridors of their schools for practice. Their times at the Lewis Center are limited to competitive events.

“As a BPS kid, we never had what we needed, so I understand what situation we’re in,” said TechBoston’s Coach Jalissa Ross, a former Division 1 basketball player who starred at Fenway High School and the University of Rhode Island.

“We’re doing the best we can, but it’s not great for the kids because they can suffer injuries,” said Coach Ross. “Going up and down stairs isn’t good on a child’s body when they do that consistently. Having the Reggie Lewis would mitigate injuries and help our students understand track and not be at a disadvantage when they show up for a meet and have never run on a real track.”

With ‘Bear Pride’ in the background, TechBoston Academy indoor track athletes practice on a dilapidated oval track above the old gym in their building – the former Dorchester High School. Seth Daniel photos

TechBoston had a break-out season last year coming from nowhere and seizing second place in the City Championship meet while also scoring impressive finishes at the statewide meet. The prep work for that success was done in school hallways amidst lockers, classrooms, and the cafeteria.

Courtney Leonard, TechBoston’s athletic director, and Coach Ross say it is enormously frustrating for their athletes not to be able to use the Lewis at times that suit them. They say it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to train there when school lets out in Dorchester at 2:30 p.m.

“It’s not right that this continues to exist,” said Leonard. “There’s no way the Reggie Lewis should have 30 team buses outside, all from outside the city. If that’s not a reflection of the situation, I don’t know what is…It’s quintessential Boston. We have kids running laps up and down stairs and in school hallways and there’s a world-class facility close by that’s supposed to be for them where we’re fighting against others for time.”

The student-athletes at TechBoston say they don’t feel safe with the situation as it is. “It would be a lot safer for us to be at the Reggie Lewis because when you run up the stairs and hallways of the school, it’s not like the school is empty,” said Junior Kalvin Johnson. “On occasions we bump into other students while we’re running and get hurt or hurt another student. That’s already happened this year. The stairs are also not safe because you can trip and fall. One teammate this year fell on the stairs and injured his ankle.” As a hurdler, Johnson isn’t able to practice at school. It’s right into competition for him.

Last Friday, the TechBoston team warmed up above the old basketball gym on a dilapidated elevated oval track that is also a hazard. In the cafeteria, they carved out space to do strengthening exercises, and then they hit the halls.

Looking to finish their runs in under two minutes, they race up the stairwells to the third floor, sprint through open hallways, head back down the stairwells to the first floor, charging through doorways to the final stretch, where they sprint past the principal’s office to the finish, avoiding teachers along the way.

“One of the things for the new track athletes is that this is their first taste of what the track team is, and this is how they are introduced to track,” said Ross as she worked a stopwatch and encouraged the athletes. “When they actually get to a real meet with a real track they are often in shock and aren’t prepared to compete.”

Running through school hallways isn’t limited to Boston athletes, noted Norwell High Coach Chuck Martin, who helps to run the Lewis Center through the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association (MSTCA), an organization that he said has fought “tooth and nail” since the 1950s to get an indoor facility built.

He pointed out that his students don’t have a field house and train outside or in the hallways as well. There are few 165-yard indoor tracks available – with places like Revere, Everett, Andover, Lexington, Medford, and Lowell being among those who have them.

He said he respects the problem Boston is having with times at the Lewis facility, but noted that “as much as this is the local community center, the track itself is a state facility, and although it is a small window for the BPS athletes because of travel, they are the only school district that gets practice time at Reggie. The majority of the schools across the state either train outside all winter, or in the hallways. I coach at Norwell and the closest indoor fieldhouse is actually the Reggie Lewis Center.”

He said he has a ton of respect for BPS students having watched their commitment to track and cross country by traveling from far reaches of the city by the T to get to meets. “That’s a different level of commitment for both the parents and athletes, something we take for granted every day in the suburbs,” he said.

Michael Turner, the executive director of the Lewis Center who took his position two months ago, said he is trying to unravel a lot of unwritten rules and policies. He said he has a draft policy paper on usage that is nearly 65 pages long right now, and part of that is figuring out better access for BPS teams. He hopes that there can be a resolution, with policies and rules posted online for everyone to see by the start of next year’s season.

Next year may be the goal, but it can’t come soon enough for the city’s student-athletes, their coaches, and elected officials. City Council President Ed Flynn, whose father, Ray Flynn, shepherded the creation of the Reggie Lewis facility when he was mayor, said the current state of athletics in BPS is just not up to par, and that includes the matter of access to the Lewis.

The school district “is lacking a comprehensive plan to address inequities in the system’s interscholastic sports programs,” Councillor Flynn said. “It must be a top priority to invest in subpar facilities, insufficient equipment, and a lack of opportunity to compete in organized sports and athletics. As a city, we must also support student athletes through academic support services. The status quo is no longer an option.”

TechBoston’s Leonard said making plans for future access – which may or may not include BPS students – isn’t enough for the kids right now.

“They wonder why BPS sports are the way they are, and this is why we lose kids to the ISL (Independent Schools League teams), to the charter schools,” she said. “It’s tough for us to get access to these amenities that are supposed to be for city kids first…Sports are one of the things that can make a kid give a damn. We should want our kids especially to find success. Our kids want to compete.”

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