DC SCORES is a unique enrichment program that combines poetry, soccer, and service-learning to fight both summer learning loss and childhood obesity. Amy Nakamoto became executive director of DC SCORES in 2006 and has since received numerous honors from organizations such as the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) for her work with D.C. youth. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray also appointed Amy to the district’s Healthy Youth and Schools Commission. DC SCORES now serves students in more than 40 DC schools.
Before joining DC SCORES, Amy was a soccer coach at Bryn Mawr College. The Falls Church, Va., native previously played soccer at North Carolina State University.
We believe that any childhood experience should involve the opportunity to be physically active (through sports, dance, etc.) and engaged in enrichment activities that help educate, broaden horizons, and help instill a sense of expression and community. So our team-based model really works to create that cohesive experience on a soccer field that is then transferred into the classroom — the idea of being a team on the field helps create a safe space for learning in the classroom.
Further, there are countless studies that report that healthier students attend school more, have stronger test scores, and are able to participate and engage in the school day more so than sedentary students. What remains shocking to me is that in many urban, under-performing school systems, allowing more time for physical education and activity is NOT on the top priority list in addressing some real educational disparities. There is a serious disconnect between education and public health and while separately, we spend a LOT of time and money addressing these issues as a society, I fear we are not looking at these issues in the intertwined manner in which they exist.
Let's be honest: I was a kid who loved school but hated gym class. How do students get involved with DC SCORES? (Is it voluntary or mandatory if the school is a partner)? How do you motivate students like me to get involved when they don't see themselves as athletic or are afraid to learn a sport?
We engage approximately 30 students per school in our after-school model during the school year. Students (and families) mostly self-select based on interest in what we offer and also what the needs are for the family (elementary students who have to stay after school). We also work with the teachers and administrators at our partner schools who make recommendations to students who would benefit from the small setting, the team-based learning, the physical activity, etc. To participate in DC SCORES, you have to do all components: the writing, soccer, and service-learning. This mandate allows students who are strong writers to learn to love sports, and for athletes to be pushed to be expressive writers, and for all of our students to use their team orientation and writing skills to implement lasting service projects. We work with students where they are, meaning we don't want to intimidate any student; however, we believe that a safe team space will encourage students to see themselves as competent in things they never even imagined before. When all works well, the confidence-building nature of this holistic model becomes self-perpetuating.
The blog for your organization is fun and inspiring, with daily updates of the accomplishments of your staff and students. How have you created and maintained such a positive culture within your organization?
The simple answer to this is that the organization reflects the program — it’s fun to be a student in DC SCORES so it should be fun to work there!
I come from a coaching background and organizational culture is very important to me. We work hard to marry the vibe and feel of the program to the experience of working at DC SCORES. Working in the small, nonprofit sector on issues of youth development, education, and health can be hard work in that staff are likely making compromises, salary-wise, to spend long hours creating an experience for students who, for reasons that are complicated, are not getting what they deserve.
To keep everyone excited and engaged, we have to celebrate our students and organizational successes. If we don't take the time to remind ourselves of why we do what we do and that it’s making a difference, we all may feel that the uphill battle is not worth it. We also get a lot of mileage out of giving and receiving high-fives!
As the flagship location for the America SCORES organization, how have you helped to expand the DC SCORES program to 42 schools? What advice do you have for others hoping to grow their own nonprofit programs and organizations?
I think we've been able to expand to so many schools by being uncompromising on our model and quality measures, while being disciplined about how and where we expand to. I would say we loosely follow the "Hedgehog Model" from Jim Collins' Good to Great and stick to doing what we do best, are most passionate about, and has a sustainable funding model. While fundraising and sustainability are always a challenge, being able to succinctly share that what we are doing works and is of high quality, and we've got years of evidence to prove it, makes the case for funding a little easier.
By way of advice, I think organizations should be focused, evaluate, and refine constantly. I'm using the term evaluate loosely, meaning evaluate if programs and concepts are in line with your mission, sustainable, and effective. It's easy to stray to meet a new need in the community or to comply with a new funder focus, but it’s much harder to communicate and measure your impact and niche with each new meandering idea. (And community needs are vast — you can't do it all … and shouldn't!).
You and your team have received a lot of acclaim for your work with youth in the District. Which of these opportunities was the most exciting for you?
Staff and volunteers that receive recognition for their work and time are the most exciting for me. As mentioned earlier, individuals who choose to work or volunteer on behalf of individuals and communities whose voice is not always heard is a tough job. It's fairly thankless and while we strive to celebrate successes internally, being honored or recognized by outside entities means that what we are doing as an organization in terms of impact on kids is working and that the folks that make it happen are the best at what they do. It's such a team-focused environment, so as a team, it feels great when one or more members are recognized!
Amanda Klein works for an education nonprofit. Her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Send your suggestions for future interviews to amandalklein(at)gmail(dot)com.