Over the noise of children laughing, coaches calling plays, and referee whistles, Executive Director Amy Nakamoto explains why she’s proud to lead DC Scores. “A majority of these students wouldn’t exercise at all if it weren’t for DC Scores,” she says, during one of the organization’s frequent “game days” at Harriet Tubman Elementary School. The field, surrounded by row houses in the heart of Columbia Heights, gets a lot of use because of DC Scores.
In 2009, the DC Department of Health found that 43 percent of DC Public School students were overweight or obese—one of the highest rates in the nation. A lack of school-based physical education and safe places for children to play contribute to the problem. According to Amy, there are few athletic programs in DCPS—and those that do exist often lack structure because of high turnover, low emphasis on building strong athletics, and few resources.
“Having a good structure—buses showing up on time, a uniform for every kid, positive and trained coaches—matters so much, even more than what players are learning on the soccer field,” Amy says. “DC Scores provides that structure.”
DC Scores was founded in 1994 by Julie Kennedy, a former DCPS teacher, as a soccer program for 15 girls who had little to do after school. Soon afterward, the program began channeling the team-centered relationships built on the soccer field into poetry workshops. By developing teamwork, encouraging creativity, and then engaging participants in service-learning projects, the program’s founder hoped to prepare students to act as leaders in their communities.
Eighteen years and thousands of students later, DC Scores still follows that core program model. “We have a connected group of soccer players and an expressive group of poets,” says Amy, “and we turn that into group action towards something good.”
Amy’s own experience as an avid student athlete, combined with her master’s degrees in education and in exercise and sport science, made her an ideal candidate to lead DC Scores. Amy describes herself as an average student who luckily discovered she was a really good athlete. “From sixth to eighth grade, I played sports every day from 3 to 8 p.m.,” she says. Amy found that playing sports, especially during difficult times, strengthened her self-confidence, shaped her identity, and kept her motivated in school.
Amy’s belief that athletics can be an anchor for kids growing up in difficult circumstances is what drew her to DC Scores. “DC Scores is a hidden treasure,” she says. “It links sports with academics and gives kids a place they can be really good and cope with what’s going on. It serves as a hook to help them become good at other things.”
“Soccer and poetry have few rules,” Amy notes. “Kids can quickly learn how to express themselves, kinesthetically or on a piece of paper, and just go out and do. They can be themselves and they develop confidence.”
DC Scores operates daily out-of-school-time programs that serve more than 800 elementary and middle school students at 27 public and public charter schools throughout DC.
Demand for DC Scores’ services has never been higher. During Amy’s tenure, the organization’s reputation and presence throughout DCPS have dramatically increased, especially in middle schools. The organization has a waiting list of around 20 schools, and board and staff are considering ways to further expand the middle school program, and exploring whether there’s a role for DC Scores in high schools.
Aware of the growing potential for DC Scores to reach more students if it had the funds to expand, the organization has stepped up its outreach to individual donors. In 2011, DC Scores began holding regular tours for small groups of community members, allowing them to meet key staff and board members and hear firsthand about the impact of DC Scores’ work. The organization’s first “Get in the Game” breakfast raised nearly $200,000 in gifts and multi-year pledges from individual donors.