As a student at Potomac High School in Prince George’s County in the late 1980s, Stephanie Evans worked in the school’s athletic director’s office. At the time, she told her boss, AD Taft Hickman, exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. She was going to be a college basketball coach.
Hickman had another idea.
“His vision was that I’m going to be an athletic director, like him,” says Evans.
Both predictions ended up accurate. Evans, now 39, would go on to coach women’s basketball at the University of the District of Columbia, Virginia State University, and Kentucky State University for most of the last decade.
And a few weeks ago, Evans called Hickman with the career news he’d been waiting a long time to hear.
“She asked me if I was sitting down, because this was big,” says Hickman, who now coaches high school basketball in Virginia Beach. “She told me she was an athletic director, like I said she’d be.”
Evans was just hired as the AD for D.C. Public Schools.
Of course, when he made his forecast, Hickman was thinking Evans would follow his footsteps and become AD at a suburban high school. That job is worlds and buckets of Advil away from running an entire big-city school system’s sports operation.
And it’s not just any school system: DCPS’ athletics bureaucracy might only be cured via a total demolition. Seal Team 6 might turn down the mission Evans just accepted for being too scary.
The current football season, for example, had to be the ugliest in the history of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, the sports league for DCPS high school teams. DCPS interim athletic director Willie Jackson ordered a humiliating number of forfeits due to player eligibility snafus, inadequate security, on-field fights, and lack of participation. Several schools couldn’t find the required minimum 18 players to suit up when the season started.
Another symptom of the sorry state of affairs within DCPS athletics: Evans, who will make $100,000 a year, is the agency’s fourth AD in just the last four years (and that’s not counting interim directors).
“I knew what I was getting into,” says Evans.
Evans’ qualifications for the top job in DCPS athletics aren’t obvious, given how the position has humbled all who’ve recently held it. Evans says DCPS didn’t find her, she found them. Discounting her time spent as a teenager in her high school AD’s office, her work history is mostly in coaching, not athletics administration. And her coaching résumé doesn’t have any blatant tells about how she finished ahead of all the other applicants. According to the database at Fanbase.com, Evans posted a 10-16 record in the 2002-03 season, her last as head coach at UDC, then went a dismal 19-62 as coach of Virginia State from 2003-06.
Evans did have a very successful run with the Thorobrettes of Kentucky State, as the team posted a 54-34 record in three seasons (2007-10), giving Evans the best winning percentage (.617) of any women’s coach in school history.
But Evans was fired by Kentucky State after the 2009-10 season. KSU fans lit up Internet message boards after Evans’ dismissal; angry posters pointed out that the school’s men’s coach, who had a losing record, was kept on. Evans says she was let go because the school brought in a new AD who wanted to make her own hires. DCPS spokesman Frederick Lewis backs up that account. “This was vetted,” Lewis says. “It was strictly the AD’s discretion and prerogative to appoint new staff.”
Kentucky State AD Denisha Hendricks declines to elaborate on why she got rid of the coach. “We will not comment on personnel matters,” Hendricks says.
Yet, résumé deficiencies or no, the timing could be right for Evans to succeed where others have flopped. She’s the first athletic director hired under Mayor Vince Gray, and in the announcement of her coming on board the Mayor emphasized that a priority of his administration would be to “elevate high school athletics.” (I did a TV show about prep sports with the mayor a few weeks ago, and was awed by how closely he’d been following the local scene.)
Gray got personally involved in bringing in Safeway as the primary sponsor of the DCPS football championship, held each Thanksgiving at Eastern Senior High School; that game is now officially known as the Safeway Turkey Bowl. Gray says he’d offered DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson his help in the search and interview processes for the new AD, but that the Evans hiring ended up being all Henderson’s. Still, Evans’ predecessors didn’t have people quite so sports-centric above them on the organizational chart.
Evans is also the first female athletic director in DCPS history. That means a lot to some folks.
“I think hiring a woman here makes a very strong statement,” says Janice Johnson, a founder of the Sankofa Project, a local nonprofit that advocates for greater opportunities for girls in scholastic athletics.
DCPS has long ranked among the worst major school systems in the country when it comes to giving female athletes as much opportunity to play ball as their male counterparts. A couple years ago, the Sankofa Project surveyed all DCPS high schools and found that only one—Bell Multicultural High School—complied with federal guidelines under Title IX, the 1972 measure that calls for schools to have an equivalent number of athletic offerings for boys and girls.
And that was before Bell started up its all-boy football program.
Coolidge Senior High School has had the aura of an athletically progressive place ever since it hired Natalie Randolph as the nation’s only female varsity football coach. However, the Sankofa Project survey found that only 30 percent of the “athletic opportunities” available to Coolidge students were for girls.
Last year, the National Women’s Law Center filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice asking the feds to investigate 12 large school districts (including Chicago, Houston and New York) with failing to meet their Title IX obligations. NWLC brass left DCPS out of their litigation—but only because our school system was in such administrative disarray that it wasn’t worth suing.
“The problems [in DCPS] are so great, it’s going to take a village for Stephanie Evans to succeed, and we’re going to try to build a village around her if she stays on the job long enough,” says Johnson. “I’ve got my fingers and eyes and everything else crossed in hoping everything works out and the insanity stops now. I think the mayor’s engaged now, and that will help, and I want give her all the support we can. I don’t want another [high school] class to go by without getting the opportunities they deserve.”
Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel for NWLC, says she’s also hopeful Evans is the right woman for the job.
“I know that since she’s been hired she’s said that expanding girls’ opportunities will be a priority,” says Chaudhry, “and so we’re optimistic. I think she realizes DCPS needs to increase sports opportunities for girls not just because it’s the law, but because sports are good for girls. There are so many studies that show that participation in sports helps with health, with academic outcomes, with a whole host of life skills. It’s the right thing to do.”
Evans says she has indeed thought a lot about the shabby lot girls have been dealt in DCPS athletics. She now plans to expand field hockey within the city; she could only name two DCPS schools, School Without Walls and Woodrow Wilson High School, that currently have teams. Evans says DCPS high schools will soon add “flag football and bowling” as varsity sports exclusively for girls in order to bridge the Title IX gender gaps she inherited.
Chaudhry says her gut reaction is that a flag-football start-up doesn’t sound like a good use of resources.
“I’m a little wary of adding a sport where there’s no opportunity for a college scholarship,” Chaudhry says.
Hickman, Evans’ old mentor, says the girl he remembers will do just fine.
“That’s a big job she’s got, a job I wouldn’t want,” he says. “But she’s such a worker, such a taskmaster. She’ll do great.”
He’s been right about her so far.
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