by Jenni Carlson
Published May 30, 2023 by The Oklahoman
Eddie Wright walked onto the football field at Northwest Classen High School one day last June and marveled at what he saw.
It was a hot day.
“About 116 degrees outside,” Wright said.
But Oklahoma City Public Schools was holding a skills camp for offensive linemen as part of its newly formed summer sports program, and darned if the field wasn’t filled with kids wearing helmets and coaches running drills.
The scene struck Wright.
“This field last year would have been empty at this time,” the athletic director for Oklahoma City Public Schools remembers thinking. “Nobody would have been out here. Look what we’ve got going on.
“That was my a-ha moment.”
Wright realized the impact the summer program was having on students from the district. He knew he not only had to keep it going but also wanted to expand it.
As Summer Learning begins its second year Tuesday, its core mission remains the same ― bridge the gap for athletes between the end of the school year and the start of fall practices so that more kids play on more teams. Even though summer programs for athletes are common in most districts, it is something OKCPS never did before. But now, the district’s summer program is expanding to include skills camps for every sport, from basketball and soccer to golf and cheer.
On board to help grow the program is Fields and Futures. Yes, the nonprofit that rebuilt every athletic field in OKCPS isn’t done. It is still working to expand opportunities for kids in the district, and this is one of the next areas of partnership.
“It’s about athletics,” said David Crynes, Fields and Futures’ director of athletic partnerships and student success, “but really underneath, it’s about kids and involvement, participation and accountability.”
Wright said, “Athletics is a pathway for graduation for us. It’s a way to get kids on the right track academically. The more we do in the summertime, the more invested they are, the better they’re gonna do in the classroom.”
It’s a fact: kids who play sports are more likely to graduate.
And right now, OKCPS wants more kids to play.
‘COVID decimated sports’
OKCPS took a big hit from COVID.
Of course, the pandemic affected just about every part of life, but in Oklahoma City Public Schools, it had an outsized impact on athletics.
“COVID decimated sports in the district,” Crynes said.
A study by the Aspen Institute indicates the national average for high school sports participation is about 54%.
With approximately 10,000 high school students in Oklahoma City Public Schools, about 5,400 students would be playing sports by the national average.
“And right now,” said Fields and Futures executive director Dot Rhyne, “we’re just over 2,000. “If we could get to 30 or 40%, that’d be a win.”
They believe Summer Learning can be part of the solution.
So does Wright.
‘They love the opportunity’
During Wright’s 16 years at Putnam City High School as athletic director and soccer coach, summer programs were a given. Teams conditioned and lifted weights. They went to skills camps and team camps. They spent as much time as possible on their sport, with each other and around their coaches.
But when Wright moved to the Oklahoma City district as associate athletic director two years ago, he realized summer was a fairly dormant time for athletics.
He was promoted to district athletic director last year and decided summer had to change.
What he created was straightforward: every weekday through the month of June, OKCPS students entering seventh grade or higher could go to their high school, or their feeder high
school in the case of middle schoolers, and be part of the sports program. They start with conditioning and weights, then work with individual sport coaches.
The kids also have transportation and meals provided, which is critical in a district where a majority of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Different things resonated differently with kids, but regardless of what they latched onto, they kept coming back.
“We found out very quickly that they love the opportunity,” Wright said. This year, he wanted to expand those opportunities.
‘Play as many sports as you can’
This year, Summer Learning will include a skill camp for every sport.
Several sports will also have leagues and scrimmages.
“It changes the monotony of the everyday working out,” Wright said. “We’re trying to provide something to almost incentivize you showing up.”
This first week, for example, there will be a two-day track clinic with coaches and athletes from Oklahoma State, Oklahoma City University and Southern Nazarene University. They will teach sprints, hurdles, shot put, discus, high jump and long jump.
Then next week, there will be a softball camp at Oklahoma City University. Coaches and players from OCU will provide instruction, one day to high school athletes, another day to middle school athletes.
Every sport will have something like that during Summer Learning.
“What I like about that is at the suburban schools and private schools where kids are going off to camps at universities or whatever,” Crynes said, “it is bringing that to them.”
And the hope is that the camps will give kids who’ve never played certain sports a chance to give them a try.
“We don’t want kids specializing in sports right now,” Wright said. “We want them to be able to participate in as many things as they can.
“Play as many sports as you can as long as you can.”
OKCPS saw good returns on last year’s summer program. Retention rates overall have risen around the district over the past year. More kids are staying on more teams. Coaches, too, are sticking around; Wright said the number of new coaches he has to hire for next academic year is dramatically lower than the number he had to hire a year ago.
Athletic directors at the OKCPS high schools have bought in to the summer program. Ditto for the coaches.
That gets Wright fired up.
“Yeah, I’m energetic about it,” he said. “I want it for their kids.”
While Fields and Futures has committed to partnering with OKCPS on the summer program, Wright got another supporter recently who knows firsthand how important summers are for athletes.
‘The greatest time of the year’
Bradford started talking to Fields and Futures founder Tim McLaughlin last fall about getting involved with the nonprofit. The Oklahoma native who won the Heisman Trophy while at OU retired from the NFL a few years ago, and after he and wife, Emma, permanently moved their family back to the Oklahoma City area, Bradford knew he wanted to start plugging into causes that aligned with his beliefs and passions.
When he heard about the summer program in OKCPS, he was immediately interested.
“Just because summertime for me growing up was the greatest time of the year,” said Bradford, who grew up in Putnam City Public Schools and went to Putnam North High School. “It was sports camps during the day, then you’d play baseball at night. And then the next day, it was sports camp and golf or whatever it was.
“We were just constantly involved.”
When he heard from Wright and Crynes just how lacking such opportunities were for kids in the district, Bradford wanted to help change that. He’s offered support of all kinds to Summer Learning.
“My hope for this is that that’s just a part of the year that kids look forward to,” Bradford said.
He is engaged, communicating with Wright on a regular basis. Bradford has even proposed a carnival-like end-of-summer celebration for athletes that is being discussed as a fun end for the program.
With all the sports and all the schools and all the activities, OKCPS is going big with its summer sports program. Considering the district had no summer program in place as recently as two years ago, the plans might seem audacious.
But doing something grand doesn’t worry Wright.
“It doesn’t feel overwhelming at all because we’ve had support along the way,” he said. “Lots of it.”
Having moments of validation last summer was helpful, too. Wright saw kids on fields and courts and tracks where they weren’t the year before. Coaches were teaching. Athletes were interacting.
Best of all, Wright believes, lives were changing.
He believes they will again this summer.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or [email protected]. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.