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Cameron Smith

Boston philanthropist lifts city's school sports with massive donation

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

It's rare for a single man to lift the fortunes of athletic programs for an entire school district. Amazingly, that's basically what's happening in Boston, where a wealthy philanthropist is donating $1 million per year to prop up inner-city public school athletics in a program co-created by Boston Mayor Tom Menino called the Boston Scholar Athlete Initiative.

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The cash man behind the big initiative is John Fish, pictured to your right, a Massachusetts native who owns Suffolk Construction Company, which is based in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. Fish has pledged an annual donation of $1 million per year across the program's first five years, and according to the Boston Globe's Bob Hohler, he's already dumped in $1.2 million in 2010 alone to upgrade academic and athletic plans for up to 1,700 students at 18 different Boston high schools.

Here's how Fish described his commitment to the program to the Globe at a recent rally.

"I'm proud to say we have something special here,'' Fish said, pledging to soon kick off a fund-raising drive.

Fish, a Hingham native who played sports at Tabor Academy and Bowdoin College, said he identifies with youths who draw confidence from athletics to face academic challenges. He copes with severe dyslexia, he said, and "can't spell beyond the fifth-grade level.''

He guaranteed the Scholar Athlete Program's viability "for the next 25, 30, 40 years, until I'm dead.''

While the program has gained most attention for the improvements it is making to athletic facilities, coaches often point to enormous strides in their students' academic performance as its greatest early achievement. The lion's share of credit for those improvements is due to special academic resource centers at each of Boston's 18 high schools. The centers, called Zones, feature educational professionals with athletic pasts, college interns and volunteers who have all stepped forward to help student athletes at the schools.

Boston coaches say they're already noticing changes the Zones initiative is making.

"The center is making a phenomenal difference in the kids' lives,'' Dorchester football coach Rich Moran told the Globe. "It's like night and day from what we had before.''

Yet while the program is an undebatable leap forward for a city long been accused of abandoning school sports, the reliance on Fish's benevolence has some in the Boston area deeply concerned.

"It's going to take five or six years for the program to really make a difference," West Roxbury High girls basketball coach Arturo Clemente told the Globe. "And I don't know if they're going to be around that long."

Others point to the delay in an official fundraising campaign, which Menino and Fish promised to launch this year, and the failure of Boston's professional sports teams to contribute to the program as causes for concern.

Still, while a lack of funding might create headaches in the future, coaches and players alike praised the program for what it has already accomplished, and the promise it holds for the future.

"This program is giving a lot of us the chances we never had,'' D'Andre Farnum, a junior football player for Dorchester Education Complex told the Globe. "We couldn't do it by ourselves.''

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