Lacrosse program shows promise for Bronx middle schoolers

New exposure to a unique sport is making a positive impact on middle-schoolers in the Bronx.

Dan Leventhal, founder and president, of Bronx Lacrosse attended Community Board 4 meeting on Tuesday, November 26 and shared with board members what a success his program has been on the two middle schools he’s worked with for the past two years.

Players in his program have 96 percent attendance rating and a hundred percent graduation rating among his eighth grade players, he shared.

As of 2019, Bronx Lacrosse offers their program at two schools: Highbridge Green Middle School and Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School.

Leventhal said he was inspired to start the program when he began teaching at Highbridge Green Middle School in 2015 and saw students didn’t have many opportunities for extracurricular activities.

With 20 years under his belt playing lacrosse and a yearning to connect with the children outside of academics, he knew this was chance to introduce the sport.

With no prior knowledge of what lacrosse even was, it took a lot of enthusiasm and compassion to ‘sell’ the sport to the kids at first, Leventhal said.

“I had to be enthusiastic about it and explain to them lacrosse is a combination of different contact sports,” Leventhal said.

In one short year, Leventhal rounded up enough gear for 30 players and officially started the lacrosse team at Highbridge Green.

The program started at Highbridge Green in the spring of 2016 with Bronx Lacrosse being founded the following year in summer of 2017.

The program at P.S./I.S. 218 started in the fall of 2018.

After a few months of practice, scrimmages along with the program’s individualized tutoring sessions with kids, parents and teachers started to see noticeable changes in participants.

“I remember the principal calling me in to office and telling me how well the kids in the program were doing,” Leventhal said. “That’s when I realized we had a good recipe going there.”

The program also offers incentives to participating students through special outings to encourage them to want more out of life.

The popularity of the sport had reached unexpected popularity within Highbridge Green.

“Lacrosse is so embedded into the school now,” Leventhal said, “Fifth graders coming into the school are excited about trying out.”

He said this past fall, half of the sixth grade boys tried out for the team.

This past July, the boys and girls teams at Highbridge Green won the Middle School Athletic City Lacrosse Championships.

This was the first time in the history of the sport that a Bronx team won the title.

Leventhal hopes the program will take a similar route at P.S./I.S. 218 and plans to expand the program to local high schools in the area.

“We are in the process of forming a partnership with a Bronx high school so students interested in continuing to play lacrosse after middle school will be able to do so,” Leventhal said.

However, Leventhal said there are many challenges Bronx Lacrosse faces as a new organization.

One obstacle Bronx Lacrosse has had to deal with is finding accessible fields to play on.

Lacrosse is typically played on a standard sized soccer field, ranging from 110-120 yards in length and 70-80 yards wide.

“The closest place for us to play our games is on Randall’s Island, where it can easily be a three hour round trip commuting using public transportation,” Leventhal said. “[So] we have to work with what we have.”

Leventhal emphasized the program is really an academic program, but uses lacrosse as a confidence builder.

“The students find a sense of pride,” Leventhal said, “standing out from the crowd carrying the lacrosse stick.”

Leventhal attributed the ongoing academic success of the program to the chief program officer, Jess Westermann, who has worked in education for 14 years.

Westermann was a former director of the NYC Department of Education New Schools Intensive and helped launch the School Empowerment Network.

“Right now our work is focusing on kids math fluency, where we are bringing in extra tutors to help with both homework and state exam prep,” said Leventhal.

The recently named captain of the Highbridge Green team, 13-year-old eighth grader, Muhammed Krubally, attested to the program’s influence on his life.

“I was pretty excited to join because my brother played and everybody in the Bronx plays basketball or soccer and this was new to me,” Krubally said.

Krubally said he’s been involved in the program for two and a half years at Highbridge Green and has grown a lot since he joined.

“It’s helped me academically, it’s helped me as a leader, and it’s helped me create bonds,” Krubally said.

He added the lacrosse team has become a brotherhood and all the teammates look out for each other.

As for his studies, Krubally said he’s noticed the progress he’s made in math and English, noting math is now his favorite subject in school. He said he meets with the program’s tutors about three times a week to work on homework.

Krubally and others in the program hope to carry their newfound confidence and potential into high school and eventually to college.

With more and more focus on student’s academic improvements in progress and CB 4 Parks Committee’s approval of field use of Mullaly Park, Bronx Lacrosse is ready for spring.

“The most important takeaway for students in our program is a greater belief in themselves, a sense of belonging, and a vision for their futures,” Leventhal said.