Carey Flex MBA Student Brings Lacrosse Sticks, Millions in Scholarships to Inner-City Students
When Simon Cataldo began teaching at Frederick Douglass Academy, in 2008, he quickly realized the Harlem middle school had a problem: some of its most academically and behaviorally challenged students were on the precipice of disaster.
This particular cohort of special needs students were skipping classes, producing some of the lowest test scores in New York City, and were among the school’s biggest perpetrators of classroom mischief.
It’s a common problem for an inner city school to have, but Cataldo’s solution was more novel – he decided to start a lacrosse team to give the kids an outlet for their behavior, and a purpose for maintaining academic achievement.
A few years into the program, Cataldo was experiencing some success, but it wasn’t until 2009 when he met Bel Air native Jake Klein, now a Flexible MBA student at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, that things really began to take off.
In the years since teaming up, Klein and Cataldo’s partnership has been a fruitful one, resulting in significant GPA increases, a 100 percent graduation rate, and millions of dollars in scholarship offers to private college preparatory and secondary schools for FDA students.
Following their success at FDA, the pair, along with others, formed the nonprofit Harlem Lacrosse in 2011. Four years later, Harlem Lacrosse has eight programs at four schools across Harlem, which includes three girls programs, and one program at The Commodore John Rodgers School in Baltimore. To date, Harlem Lacrosse has helped earn $9 million in scholarship offers for its participants.
The hidden secret to the success, says Klein, is this: it’s not actually about lacrosse.
“The big secret is that all the gains were entirely educational,” Klein said. “On average, the special education kids had nearly 10 point GPA increases, and some of the other kids had five to six points in their core classes. The gains in the state test scores for the students in our program were some of the highest in the entire city. It was all of those kind of stats that the adults were in on, but as far as the kids knew, they were just playing on their school lacrosse team.”
The success stems from the program’s model, which is centered on the head lacrosse coach. But this isn’t your traditional coaching job, says Klein. The job requires a multi-faceted individual, and is more parts teacher, social worker, and academic counselor than sports coach.
“It’s a seven day a week, year round, wrap around academic program that would address the needs of the lowest performing kids in a public school in Harlem,” said Klein. “So the job wasn’t to just show up after school; the job was to be in the hallways all year long, to really immerse yourself in the community.”
When Cataldo left the position to pursue a law degree at the University of Virginia in 2012, Klein stepped in, at first on a temporary basis. He ended up serving in the post for three years.
Each of the nine programs Harlem Lacrosse operates has a full-time program director whose job it is to fuel academic achievement through lacrosse. This includes working with the kids in study hall, scheduling academically-enriching field trips, working with guidance counselors and other licensed professionals, and, in some cases, assisting parents with the admissions process to prestigious secondary schools and colleges. The positions are completely funded by the nonprofit through grants and donations, meaning it comes at almost no additional cost to the school.
“Our big thing is we like to think we hire the right people for this kind of job,” Klein said. “When we fundraise, we aren’t fundraising for lacrosse gear; we fundraise to hire the right people who can change lives as soon as they land on the ground at the public school.”
A self-described “Baltimore lifer,” Klein’s work with Harlem Lacrosse guided him to Carey, where he is earning his MBA with plans to pursue an MS in health care management. He said Carey’s mission to teach business with humanity in mind coupled with the Johns Hopkins name and network were huge draws for him.
He added that the classroom experience of studying with renowned doctors, top level health care executives, and others creates a truly unique educational experience.
“I’ve been so impressed with the quality of student I’m sitting next to,” Klein said. “To be able to spend two years shoulder to shoulder with some of the biggest names in health care, there is no better way to get introduced to the world of health business.”
But for Klein, it all really starts and ends with Harlem Lacrosse. He currently serves as an advisory board member, and he says he hopes to keep expanding the program, specifically in Baltimore.
“Beyond lacrosse being a hotbed here, the problems we were seeing in Harlem and the South Bronx were just Baltimore light,” Klein said. “We really feel like there are oceans of kids like this who are full of potential but just need the door opened and they just need the resources and information.”
He also said his goal to break into the health care business is partly influenced by his experiences at Harlem Lacrosse.
"So many of the kids we see come to school didn’t get enough sleep the night before or maybe they don’t have a balanced diet, or they don’t have access to a consistent pediatrician or even a specialist,” Klein said. “These kids are coming to school sick, hungry, tired, and upset, and on top of it affecting their long-term health, it affects their academic well-being. I want to continue work that will not only empower the students in our program, but their families too."