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November 26, 2013 at 6:00 AM

A school that puts sports first? Could be a slam-dunk for some kids, says charter applicant

Will Niccolls, a longtime referee and founder of Sports in Schools, talks with Evergreen High School basketball players in 2012. Photo by Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times.

Will Niccolls, a longtime referee and founder of Sports in Schools, talks with Evergreen High School basketball players in 2012. Photo by Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times.

Everyone knows kids who show up in class only so they can go to basketball or football practice later. A proposed charter school hopes to build its entire program on exactly that kind of athletic motivation.

Will Niccolls, founder of the Sports in Schools nonprofit, which raises money for sports programs and for kids who want to play but can’t afford the fees, has asked state officials to authorize a Sports in Schools Charter School for the fall of 2015.

A longtime soccer referee and former staffer in the Bush White House, Niccolls was profiled in 2012, just as Sports in Schools was getting off the ground. Since then, he says the operation has expanded dramatically, raising about $500,000 in total – all of it to support local athletic programs and Niccolls’ belief that sports provide an important way to reach some students who don’t do well in traditional programs.

“Our target for the school will be 100 dropouts, students who have been kicked out or who are not going to graduate,” Niccolls said. “People hear that and they always ask the same question: ‘What are you thinking?’ Starting a school is a monumental undertaking, and it’s probably amplified by the nature of our target demographic. They’re tough in the first place, and we’re planning to put a whole bunch of them together and do something that will hopefully yield different results.”

Among the more unusual aspects of the proposed charter school: Having coaches attend class with their students, helping them along in math, reading and history.

“That relationship between a coach and a student has been proven, generation after generation, as being a critical one,” Niccolls said. “We’re taking that model that you’d normally get in an after-school setting and putting it into the school day.”

Niccolls did not invent this vision out of whole cloth. His charter would be patterned on a similar model, Urban Dove, currently educating 95 student-athletes in New York City.

Sports in Schools needs $1 million to get off the ground in Seattle, Niccolls says. Next hurdle: Feb. 24, 2014, when the Washington State Charter Commission will notify applicants of those schools that it plans to approve.

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