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America Rows Feature: Sunday School At MIT

March 09, 2012

Amphibious Achievement Teaches Inner City Youth to Row and Learn

The wind was whipping the waters of the Charles River into an uninviting frenzy, but because it was a mid-February Sunday morning, the chances of there being any rowers on the water were slim anyway, particularly for high school crews.

That didn’t stop the group of inner city high school aged boys and girls sitting on rowing machines inside the MIT boathouse from dreaming about being outside on the river in front of them.

“Just look at that beautiful river,” said MIT student Noam Angrist, “and dream about what it will be like to out there doing what you’re doing now.”

Angrist knows what it is like to dream about something and then make it happen.

Last year he and fellow MIT student, Ron Rosenberg came up with an idea of bringing students from Boston’s inner city schools to MIT every Sunday to introduce them to rowing and swimming and combine that with an academic program that will help them back in school.

They called it Amphibious Achievement, brought the idea to MIT’s Public Service Center, were awarded a grant and got the program started. Targeting the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Sciences in Roxbury, Angrist and Rosenberg mustered up a team of MIT student volunteers and began recruiting their first class in 2010.

The program they designed combined two hours of physical fitness, either in the university’s aquatic facilities at the Zesiger Center or to the MIT boathouse where they were introduced to rowing.

The second portion of the program brings the entire group of students to a classroom on campus where they are given lunch and then are tutored for two-hours in pre-college admission testing and critical reading skills.

“We see athletics as a vehicle for success,” Angrist said. “But the real goal for the achievers is to have a place where they feel like they can succeed.”

The first year of the program there were a total of 15 students from one school. This year, the program has 39 students drawn from a lottery of 65 applicants from three Boston high schools.

There are 29 student mentors and the funding for the project has been steadily growing. They have attracted thousands of dollars in donations and sponsorships from local business and from private, individual donations.

The program runs year round, with a break for the winter holidays, has career tutoring and summer camps, and is hoping to gain access to enough rowing equipment to get the kids from the rowing machine and into boats on the Charles with the hopes of eventually attending races, in particular USRowing’s Diversity Invitational Regatta scheduled for Sunday, August 25 in Rochester, N.Y.

“A few of the Achievers can’t swim yet,” Angrist said. “We’re working on that and we’re working on getting a boat. We are working on getting them on the water this season and we want to plan to go to the Diversity Invitational, if not this year, then the next.”

While introducing these students to rowing is a goal for Angrist, who was a rower in high school and has coached high school rowing, the primary goal is to provide a program that can change the way the students view themselves and their ability to succeed in school.

And in that, it is succeeding. At 16-years-old, Carly Johnson was giving up on the idea of staying in school and was becoming distracted by “personal issues.”

“I was getting stressed out and I started skipping school, not going to my classes, but then I met with Noam and I got back on track,” she said. “The program really helped me because I started to give up and when I got here, they were telling me I do so well here, there is no reason I shouldn’t be doing well in school and to just leave all the other things out and just focus on school because school is really, really important,” she said.

“This helped a lot. I was really glad when I found this,” Johnson said.

“That’s a story that really motivates us to do this every week,” Angrist said. “Carly is one of my best rowers, the most committed and the most articulate in the classroom,” he said. “And that’s our goal, to provide a place that supplements the school system where we can teach achievers that they can succeed.”

Ed Moran

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