At the Earl Monroe School, a Ball and a Book Will Change the World

·6 min read

Today’s guest columnist is filmmaker Dan Klores.

Kids are like point guards. They explore what’s in front of them using their eyes. Similarly, as a teacher, school administrator, or counselor, it is real-life experience, in and out of the classroom, that allows one to see clearly.

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What does “the great” classroom leader see? He or she needs to know the feints and jab steps of each child who enters the building. They must develop in a short period of time the good sense to feel the sleepless nights of the innocent, their early morning empty stomachs, the effects of the shouting at home. Likewise, the great educator must see the joy of learning, of encouragement, of affirmation, and of the small, step-by-step climb toward self-confidence. Just as a point guard knows how to reward teammates, students thrive most when the teacher acts as mentor, encouraging personal growth, and rewarding with truth, rather than slogans.

We can learn a lot from basketball—including how to learn.

At its most basic level, I created the Earl Monroe New Renaissance Basketball Charter High School (EMNRS) in New York City, because it combined two of my lifelong loves—hoops and teaching.

Located in the South Bronx, the coed EMNRS is the first-of-its-kind inner city high school for basketball, but not for the playing of the game. Its students walk through the doors each day with the hope that their passion for the City Game will be met with opportunities offered not on the basketball court but through its surrounding ecosystem—that by learning about the world through the prism of basketball, they’ll gain knowledge and access to jobs in and around the sport that will bring successful and passionate futures. We believe that providing these priceless keys to all of our students is the true essence of social justice.

This year’s flagship freshman class of 110 students (total school enrollment will be 440 upon 2025 graduation) is overwhelmingly underserved, and black and brown. They got into the school by entering a lottery for classroom slots, and given the lottery system, we are unable to recruit athletes, which serves us just fine. There are plenty of IMGs and Oak Hills for future pros. We had freshman teams this year—kids who play hard, care, love the game and will certainly improve. Our boys team lost to a tony private school, Horace Mann. Their annual tuition is $65,000. Ours is free. We’ll get them on the court eventually, but that isn’t the point.

At EMNRS, a student’s dream, whether it is to become a broadcaster, journalist, physical therapist, nutritionist, fashion designer, analytics expert or team owner, can start to become a reality. We will help guide those yearning to be sports psychologists, scouts, coaches, referees or general managers, as well as those interested in in-arena entertainment, team finance, marketing or legal work.

As a tuition-free school, the gifts we can give are enormous. We hired seven full-time literacy enrichment teachers in October, stretching our budget by $575,000 when diagnostic test scores showed our 9th-grade students reading at, on average, a 4th-grade level. We have also raised enough to begin Year Two with a remarkable 4:1 ratio of students to staff, far better than most of this country’s institutions, public or private.

This is all thanks to our Trustees, Advisors and donors, who include Nike, J.P. Morgan, Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Gatorade, Dick’s Sporting Goods, the NBA, NBA Players Association, the Knicks, the Yankees, the Gates Foundation, Paul Simon, Bill Simmons, Melody Hobson, six basketball Hall of Famers, business people, actors, artists and more lawyers than should be allowed in a room together. We are $3 million shy of being self-sufficient, a goal we need to get to by December.

I now have new role models—educators and builders of other charter schools, who are experts in the pedagogy I dream about, which holistically combines special needs, literacy enrichment, behavioral issues and project-based learning.

We have a formidable enemy. It is called 14 years of neglect. These students have been faced with harsh socio-economic challenges and difficulties, and if that weren’t enough, two years of COVID took them out of their school seats and left many with no real way to learn.

I was always warned that opening a high school where we inherited a life’s worth of problems was an extremely uphill battle. So what? Are we to forget children because they are older? I am more than hopeful, guided by the words of our Founding Trustee, David Stern, who stated that “a ball and a book can change the world.”

Our four walls are the embodiment of that promise. We follow proven successes in history. Nixon entered China with a ping pong ball. Arthur Ashe and Magic tackled HIV awareness. Billie Jean, Martina and Rick Welts combated the prejudices of sexual orientation.

Eight years after I began this fight we opened our doors at a temporary space inside a Catholic Church with the full support of our community. In 2024/2025, we will move to our permanent home—a soon-to-be-built five-story, 67,000-square-foot building in Mott Haven, where we intend to be the anchor tenant for more positive change and investment. These streets feel, sound and smell like the Brooklyn I was raised in 65 years ago. The fruit stands, bargain stores, barber shops, charge accounts, and subway els. I see my departed mother taking two buses to get to work, except now she’s wearing a different coat and has a face of a different color.

We’ve been through the thick of things, including real estate losses, and the heartbreaking deaths of David Stern and another of our initial supporters, Lewis Katz. We failed to set a much-needed culture from the get-go. Often, I thought of quitting, and have rarely gotten a good night’s sleep. Doesn’t matter.

The most profound reason for starting this school reaches back to childhood and young adulthood, when I struggled emotionally and academically. It was only through the support and embrace of a handful of special people who opened my eyes and guided me that I found a world that accepted me and offered opportunity. Without them, I would have been dead. I credit my life to teachers, coaches and mentors who have passed on: Ben Jobe, Gary David Goldberg, Teddy Steinberg, and David Stern. I stand today, lonelier, but swinging away.

The ball’s in our hands now. At our ribbon-cutting ceremony, Adam Silver (who was joined by Earl Monroe and Michele Roberts of the players’ association) was swarmed as if he were Jay Z by screaming student admirers. He let them know that for every player in the NBA and WNBA, there are at least 100 jobs off the court, and urged our children to take advantage of the opportunity EMNRS provides them. As Earl’s mentor and Hall of Fame coach, Clarence “Big House” Gaines, told him, “When opportunity knocks, it’s time to walk through the door.”

 Klores is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and playwright. His last film, the 20-hour, 10-part “Basketball: A Love Story,” was broadcast on ESPN.

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