Marquis Taylor is catching up with one of his instructors at East Middle School gym in Brockton, Massachusetts. School let out an hour ago, but the room is alive with the hoops and hollers of excited middle school students – and the sound of their sneakers squeaking across the gym’s glossy basketball court.
It’s a rather ironic sound for Brockton, a small city just south of Boston. In the not-so-distant past, the 94,000 people who call Brockton home once touted their hometown’s moniker ‘Shoe City’ with pride. Just a century ago, this place was home to over 90 shoe manufacturers. The last one left in 2009, taking the city’s industrial legacy – and its Golden Era promise of gainful employment – with it.
The narrative is a common one. Cities that found success as 20th century manufacturing hubs have become plagued with economic anxiety in post-industrial America. In cities such as Brockton, the flight of industry has created socioeconomic vacuums. Climbing unemployment rates are followed by increases in crime, truancy, incarceration, and homelessness; all factors that perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
“These small cities have big city problems without the big city resources,” said Taylor. Brockton’s teen birth rates, for example, are more than double the state average, and forty-nine percent of children in the city don’t attend preschool. “If you’re successful, you get out. You don’t go back,” said Taylor. “Because there’s nothing for you to go back to.”
Taylor, a social entrepreneur and former Echoing Green fellow, isn’t even from Brockton. Rather, he attended college nearby after leaving his hometown in South Central Los Angeles. There, he watched his mother break the cycle of generational poverty by becoming a schoolteacher, climbing the ladder to a school district leadership positing, and setting the stage for Taylor to go to college.
Now, he finds himself doing the same for the students of Brockton. The after-school nonprofit he founded, Coaching4Change, uses sports to create an organic peer-to-peer mentorship network inside schools.
“We train college students to mentor high school students, and together they’re running programs for middle school students,” he said. “We build that college pipeline the same way youth sports does by exposing kids to teaching and exposing them to what it means to have a practical, hands-on educational experience.”
Here’s how it works: After school, half of the kids in the program go to the gym to play organized sports like soccer and basketball. The other half go to classrooms to participate in sports-centric academic projects, like using statistics to analyze sports data and writing recaps of games they watched.
It keeps kids off the streets and in the classroom. In 2014, the crime rate in Brockton was almost double that of the country. Meanwhile, 31 of 42 high school students who participated in Coaching4Change’s program last year were accepted at colleges. Three went into the military and 11 entered the workforce. Gianni Martin was in the program as a high school student. Now he’s back as a mentor.
“As a high school student, it was something fun to do after school. My grades were slipping. In the program, I was doing homework at school instead of going home and not doing it,” Gianni said. The program taught Martin a bit about himself, too. “Some of these kids don’t be listening. I know in middle school I was like that.”
East Middle School principal Kelly Silva said she’s noticed students in the program are more invested in their own education because they “know they have someone looking out” for their best interests – someone other than a teacher who has gone through the program themselves and found success.
Diana, a high schooler mentoring middle schoolers, agreed. Being fresh out of middle school gives her some insight into how the students think, and what they need. “I know what to do to wake them up because that’s what I would want.”
The program creates an organic framework that helps students learn from one another. And it works: Last year, 83 percent of middle schoolers in the program increased school attendance, 70 percent showed growth in literacy and 76 percent improved in math.
Unlike most after-school programs, Coaching4Change is built to serve students with average school records – students that need to be inspired to succeed. Like Brockton, Taylor said, those average students are often the most ignored.
“When we look at kids in these communities, they’re in an education system that’s just like the economy. Kids at the top have the world. Kids at the bottom have remedial programs. But what about kids in the middle?” said Taylor. “No one pays attention to them. Not intentionally – they just don’t have the staff.”
Much like how he watched his mother break the cycle of poverty, Coaching4Change gives students insight into how opportunity has helped people who were in their shoes as recently as last school year.
“I learned that if I really try, I can be a great teacher and help kids if it’s really needed,” said Kimairys, a student who mentored Diana. “I feel like that’s a good quality to have as a person.”