"Advancing the transformation of learning and the media"
When he signed on as assistant principal at Acorn Community High School, yet another troubled “small learning community” in crown heights, O’Reilly noticed at least two serious deficiencies. For one, bulletin boards were getting set afire on a twice weekly basis. For another, there was no basketball program in this inner city Brooklyn school. He wasn’t sure which was the more egregious, although he saw the potential for solutions to both issues.
With the eventual, auspicious meeting and hiring of one Coach Jeffrey Wilder, a former pro basketball in the Euro leagues who happened to have an English degree from Iona College—thus began a synergistic relationship—“and an authentic sports/scholar program” which was to stop the behavioral mayhem at Acorn, not to mention create a championship-calibre basketball team at Acorn in only one season.
“It was as if Jeff and I were destined to meet---with his pro basketball skills and his English degree,” recalled O’Reilly. Their work at Acorn created a very effective modulation of the “sports/scholar” model which , as Wilder notes, “is rarely used with integrity in all schools and sports programs, public and private.” As he explained, the usual athletics program is all about winning games “even at the expense of the integrity of the sports/scholarship at the school.” As he went on to explain, most school athletic programs are about winning, and any academic rules that can be bent or broken will be.
“These programs don’t use the leveraging available to them to make athletes become good students,” added O’Reilly. They’ll play the best players no matter what the kids are doing in their classes. Not so in our program, says he, “because if the best player isn’t doing his math homework or showing up to class the day of the big game, he simply will sit on the bench and watch his team lose by 20 points because of his failure as a student. Now you had best believe that peer pressure can be a very positive force in these circumstances,” said O’Reilly.
What set O’Reilly/Wilder sports scholar program apart from other “so-called” coaching efforts was the inclination of school sports programs to give only lip service to the “scholar” part, and make their only objective to field the best possible team for competition. Thus, it was fairly common to hear students complaining about the “special treatment” that athletes were getting in their academic programs. Although there were “rules” in place requiring students to maintain a certain baseline grade average and scholarly performance, they were often flouted, to the detriment of the morale of the school community.
The reality is that high school athletes who have the fortune to win athletic scholarships quite often aren’t able to cut it academically and are forced to drop out of college after only a semester or two.
As a very talented English language arts teacher himself, Jeff was never one to drop his attention to the more important aspect of his approach---school performance. Therefore, if his star player didn’t make it to his 8th period science class or turn in his homework this morning in social studies, this key athlete would “ride the pine” or sit out that evening’s game, even if it meant losing to an inferior team by 20 points. “We all know about the destructive aspects of peer pressure, with gangs and drugs, but there is no more positive influence than one’s peers when the success of the team is at stake, “ noted Wilder.
Suffice it to say, team mates would be quick to correct their wayward team mate whose negligence in the classroom cost them the game that night. “I’m really a lot more forgiving than the kids themselves,” he added.
Although it was too late to join the PSAL league, being in their first season, the team was able to play the number 2 team in the city, Benjamin Banniker in full game scrimmages twice, winning both games. Finally in the “Work Hard, Play Hard” tournament, Acorn and Banniker met in the finals, with Wilder’s team winning by 20 points. Now some might argue that the tournament Banniker team was not at its full strength, but the prior two scrimmages did have both teams putting forth their best players and best efforts.
A highly mentored, highly leveraged sports/scholar program has transformed some of the most behaviorally and academically-challenged young men into successful students and team players who value their performance in class even more highly than their performance on the court. Bill O’Reilly and Jeff Wilder—one a school leader and the other a former pro basketball player—are using a highly leveraged sports-scholar approach that has had a 78% academic success rate among its players, sharply reduced violent behavior and gang recruitment at inner city schools , while producing a championship –calibre basketball team in record time. Some of their former players are in college, some are in the world of work—but the real miracle is the difference that mentoring can make in the life of young men of color in Brooklyn