Hands shoot up as gymnastics national champ eMjae Frazier takes questions from a crowd of intrepid reporters. But instead of a gym, she is in a middle school auditorium, and the journalists are kids.
“When did you land your first backflip?” a lanky middle schooler asks of the Cal sophomore. Later come the hardballs: “Should college athletes get paid?”
The students are part of a new summer school program at King Middle School in Berkeley that teaches literacy through sports reporting.
In four weeks, the middle school students reported on an A’s game and interviewed a suite of sports figures, including Warriors broadcaster and former NBA player Kelenna Azubuike and Oakland Soul captain Miranda Nild. Once a week, sports reporters and athletes came to the Berkeley summer school to do a mock interview, offering advice and helping students hone the art of asking questions.
Berkeley Unified is the first school district in California to work with Write on Sports, a nonprofit started 17 years ago by retired Associated Press sports reporter Byron Yake.
Jackie Krentzman, who’s directing the Berkeley program, said the organization’s goal is to improve reading and writing skills for students, especially those in underserved communities, by engaging them on a topic they care about. “If you want to improve a kid’s writing in school, you find something that they’re into,” she said.
Write on Sports partners with school districts to run summer camps, after-school programs and workshops. Students work together with teachers in small groups: There are usually five students for every teacher. The students are considered writers, and teachers, the editors. At the end, students publish a magazine with the group’s best work, according to Shannon Schmitt, an operations director at Write on Sports responsible for supporting new and existing programs.
When Krentzman learned about Write on Sports, the organization’s vision resonated deeply with her own life experiences, and she resolved to help it expand into her community — and others in the state.
Inside a classrooms after the interview, Frazier fielded more questions from students, who scribbled her answers in notebooks, and performed a backflip for the class, as teacher LaChelle McDaniels looked on.
Having taught summer school for years, McDaniels knew how hard it can be to get some students engaged. “Immediately they might tell you, ‘I don’t want to be here. My mom made me be here.’” But she said the visits from the athletes and journalists pulled students into the material. “Just to see them magically get interested in something” was special, she said.
In Berkeley, summer school is optional in middle school, but teachers may recommend it for students who are behind in reading or math. Some parents also choose to sign their kids up for supplemental learning. It’s taught mostly by Berkeley Unified teachers and administrators, with help from students at UC Berkeley’s graduate program in education.
“You get opportunities that you never would have,” said BJ, an 8th grader at Longfellow Middle School. BJ’s favorite part of the program was meeting Azubuike, who he grew up watching on television with his grandmother. “I got to meet him, shake his hand, talk with him, ask him questions. That really had an impact on me.”
After bonding with Berkeley 6th grader over sports, Krentzman became his parent
Krentzman’s path to Write on Sports was a profound and personal one.
A former sports reporter, she covered the Warriors, Giants and A’s, as well as Cal Athletics. In 1993, she signed up to volunteer at an after-school program for Berkeley youth, where she began tutoring Josh Gray, a 6th grader at BUSD.
Gray was a charismatic kid who connected easily with adults, but he was struggling — at home and in school. The two bonded over sports.
“Of course we hit it off, because I was covering the Warriors and he thought he would be the next Michael Jordan,” Krentzman said.
Krentzman used Gray’s passion for sports to help him to improve his literacy skills. Gray, who was in foster care and living with his grandmother, was looking for an adult role model. Krentzman started taking him to Warrior’s games, assigning him writing assignments based on what he saw. They maintained a relationship, getting breakfast at Homemade Cafe every Saturday morning.
Eventually, Krentzman and her husband, Larry, would become Josh’s parents. Under their guidance, Gray went from thinking he would end up dealing drugs to becoming the president of Berkeley High’s Black Student Union, later graduating from Howard University and launching a successful career in politics in Washington D.C. He is now Vice President of Ogilvy, an advertising company.
“They were 100% the difference in that,” Gray said during an interview about his life on This Political Life.
Krentzman continued working in journalism and publishing, though she no longer wrote about sports. When she learned about Write On Sports, she thought of the transformative experience sports writing had had on her son’s life. The puzzle pieces clicked into place.
“It brought together my passions — my passion for sports writing, kids who need help with their skills, and I live in Berkeley,” Kretzman said. “It was a Eureka moment.”
Despite her enthusiasm for the topic, Kreztman isn’t naive about the impact a four-week long program can have. “If you don’t have books in your house as a kid, it takes a long time to catch up,” she said.
Summer school didn’t go perfectly. Some students signed up thinking they were attending a sports camp, not a sports writing program, which isn’t the first time that’s happened with Write On Sports.
But overall, teachers and administrators called the program a success. KZ Zapata, an administrative intern who acted as the summer school’s vice principal, said having live interviews provided students with a motivating reason to research and take notes.
Christi Roscigno, who leads summer and after-school programming at BUSD, said the district is considering repeating Write On Sports next year, depending on available funding and how promising students’ reviews and scores are.
Next, the hope is to grow the program, either at BUSD or at other school districts throughout the Bay Area.