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Reds Urban Youth Academy focuses on more than the game

After-school program pairs classroom education with on-field training

The patrons of the Reds Urban Youth Academy come for the baseball.

Make no bones about it. The place does, after all, have a 33,000-foot indoor facility complete with batting cages, pitching mounds and a practice field.

They stay for the education.

Arguably the more important part of the Academy is nestled behind the scenes.

Walk past the batting cages and row of lockers and you'll stumble upon the thing that distinguishes this Academy from most baseball and softball training facilities: the classroom.

Actually, there are several of them at the Reds Urban Youth Academy, and you can usually find Melissa DeJonckheere in one of them.

DeJonckheere is a graduate student at the nearby University of Cincinnati, studying to get her Ph.D. in education.

"I think that's one of the big draws, for us as a UC partner, is to be able to be a part of an organization or a space that's doing something kind of innovative," she said. "Not a lot of programs around combine baseball with an educational piece. So it's unique in that way. But for UC, our role through the Center for Hope and Justice Education is to provide educational support for kids to connect their baseball and their school lives.

"A lot of kids, regardless of upbringing, are just not interested in school. 'School is boring, school is no fun, we don't want to do the work,' whatever. And so we tried to use baseball as a metaphor for talking about things that we would talk about in a classroom. It's just a different way to get kids engaged in school or interested in school through baseball."

The Urban Youth Academy is built to service inner-city kids through baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) initiative. Each time students visit, they participate in a baseball or softball clinic, then proceed on to the classroom to work with DeJonckheere and other University of Cincinnati education majors.

"Each week looks a little bit different, so it's kind of hard to say exactly what we do, but we're loosely interested in self-expression and critical thinking, and getting kids to talk about things that they don't necessarily talk about in school, [or] just talking more than they maybe do at school," DeJonckheere said.

"We also have tutoring, Monday through Wednesday, that just further supports students to reach their academic goals. It's a drop-in time, so anybody who has homework can stop by as long as they participate in some sort of baseball or softball program. So if they're on one of the teams or they come for a clinic they're welcome to stop by for homework help."

On one January weeknight, DeJonckheere prepared a lesson plan based on the popular Facebook phenomenon Humans of New York -- which recently featured an urban school in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- as two other UC students hunched over homework with a pair of young pupils during tutoring time.

While the time DeJonckheere and her collegiate peers get with Urban Youth Academy participants is limited -- they meet for 30 minutes per week -- the effects have been tangible.

"Kids will leave the room and they'll say, 'Wow, that education stuff is awesome!' I think they do have fun, because it's something a little different," DeJonckheere explained. "I'm working with a student now who's trying to pass the graduation tests. He's taken them a few times, and he can't seem to pass this one so he's continuing to work. I think, because he's so motivated by the baseball stuff, it's giving him extra encouragement to pass and to get his high school diploma. Because he really wants to play baseball, he wants to get a scholarship for baseball. So in order to do that, well, he needs to come every day and work on his science. And he's been doing that, so that's really motivating to me to see kids who are extra invested in education just because of the baseball side."

DeJonckheere isn't the only one who sees it that way. Charley Frank, executive director of the Reds Community Fund and one of those spearheading the Urban Youth Academy effort, stressed the emphasis the Academy and UC put on a unique form of character education.

"We wanted to do something that was non-traditional," Frank explained. "They spend all day in classrooms, so if they come to play ball and we take them off the field, we want whatever that classroom work is to be something that's really unique and fun and expressive, and UC has really delivered."

Even Reds Hall of Famer Dave Parker, who's been teaching a series of hitting clinics at the Roselawn Park facility, marveled at the unprecedented nature of the academy's services.

"You don't see too many programs that emphasize that," Parker said. "Education is put on the backburner, but not here. That's something that is requested out of each kid to come through. When I first came and the first day I was here to see them, [they were] required to do an hour of education -- the kids jumped right on it and did it immediately."

"A lot of kids don't have access to tutoring or some sort of after school program and [a place] to go after school," DeJonckheere added. "So even just having this building that's free and there's these clinics and there's tutoring … all of that combined just does a lot to support students in all of these different avenues, not just baseball, a more holistic support."

And at the end of the day, that's what it's all about.

Megan Zahneis is a reporter for
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