Walls field hockey’s Beza Dagnachew (left), Jordan Fingerhut, and Dysis Scarlett
Walls field hockey’s Beza Dagnachew (left), Jordan Fingerhut, and Dysis Scarlett

Every weekend of last field hockey season, Jordan Fingerhut and another student from School Without Walls spent around four hours lining and patching up Francis Field, a West End park about a mile from their school, where their club field hockey team has played since its founding in 2011. Between games, residents treat the field as an informal dog park, with predictable consequences.

In the spring, Jordan, plays second base for the Walls varsity softball team. Last year, after its practice field at Georgetown’s Rose Park was deemed unfit for play by D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the team practiced everywhere from the National Mall to a lot outside its Foggy Bottom school. Jordan estimates that at least one softball practice was canceled every week due to poor field conditions. For a team that had been D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association softball champions in 2011 and 2012, the sudden unreliability of a practice venue had a noticeable impact. “It definitely hurt us in the long run,” Jordan says. “I think we’re a good team, but we didn’t practice enough because we didn’t have access to a good field.”

This year, Walls girls soccer uses Ellington Field in Burleith, which is not Metro-accessible and is shared with three other schools. Walls’ boys soccer team has exclusive practice access to a turf field at the Marine Barracks field.

It’s these kinds of unequal conditions—and a vast disparity in opportunities for male and female athletes in D.C. Public Schools—that spurred the interest of the National Women’s Law Center, which alleged in a June Title IX administrative complaint that DCPS has failed to provide female athletes opportunities for participation and resources equal to those provided to boys. After DCPS declined to work with the legal center privately, it filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which is also investigating a separate May 2012 complaint against DCPS regarding unfair treatment of female athletes.

Not that DCPS hasn’t strived for equality in its sports offerings, at least to a point. To respond to growing parental concern, in 2007 Michelle Rhee, then the DCPS chancellor, gave the Sankofa Project, a local nonprofit focused on providing services to urban female athletes and promoting Title IX education, a contract to assess compliance with the federal law, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded educational programs.

But “nobody seemed to know what to do with the data,” says Sankofa co-founder Janice Johnson, so the project brought its research to NWLC in 2009.

The surveys administered by Sankofa, completed by only seven schools, showed a demonstrated interest in girls lacrosse and volleyball at schools without teams. Both are sports that could use existing school facilities. Instead, in 2010 DCPS added girls flag football, which offers no college scholarship opportunities, and bowling.

“There’s no schools that have bowling alleys and very few communities that do,” says Terry Lynch, former vice president of Walls’ Parent Teacher Association. He has one daughter who played sports at Walls before graduating in 2011 and one who currently plays for the school.

Across the system, DCPS would need to add nearly 700 spots for girls on athletic teams to meet Title IX requirements, NWLC concluded after surveying data on the 2010-11 school year that it obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request. Even in schools where the number of girls teams has boomed—like Walls, which recently added lacrosse, field hockey, Ultimate Frisbee, bowling, and dance—struggles for resources remain constant.

Because only one other DCPS school, Wilson, has a field hockey team, the Walls team maintains club status, meaning it receives no DCPS funding. Payment is not required to play, but the team—whose start-up price tag alone was $10,000—asks parents who can afford it to chip in, says Karen Beiley, Jordan’s mother. They rely on used, donated equipment, and money from fundraising and community grants, she says.

“We have a solid amount of teams for girls, it’s just that some people feel that because we don’t have the quality [of facilities and referees] that some other schools do, they’re not going to play the sport,” says Jordan.

The Title IX complaints come at a time when similar NWLC filings against other school districts across the country appear to be nearly done working their way through the system. But students like Jordan shouldn’t hold their breaths. Of the 12 complaints NWLC filed five years ago, the feds have only finished investigating eight.

* * *

Before it was collecting data on opportunities for female athletes across the District, the Sankofa Project was showing what good coaching and funding could do for D.C. players. Founded by a group of mothers to get their daughters the opportunities at H.D. Woodson High School needed to play college basketball, Sankofa raised funds privately and received constituent funds from D.C. councilmembers to cover the team’s expenses, according to Johnson.

In Sankofa’s first year working with Woodson in 2005, all but one graduating senior received an athletic scholarship. (The one who didn’t got an academic one.) Johnson’s own daughter, Patrice, graduated from Wake Forest in May after attending on a full athletic scholarship for basketball.

But building Woodson into a basketball powerhouse made the poor quality of resources and coaching at other schools more evident. The school consistently beat other District teams by huge margins, says Johnson. Playing lower quality teams in DCPS hurt the team’s own national ranking, she says.

In 2010, Roosevelt High School eliminated its girls basketball program because of coach turnover. The school dropped its soccer team in 2003 for the same reasons. According to the NWLC complaint, in 2010-11, the school was tied with Ballou High School for the highest participation gap between the percentage of students enrolled who are female and the percentage of athletic opportunities at the school allotted for girls. Their participation gap for female students was 26 percent, meaning that for a student body that was 45 percent female and 55 percent male, 81 percent of the school’s athletic opportunities were for boys. (The DCPS average gap is 12 percent.)

NWLC’s interest in the District doesn’t end with traditional public schools. The group also has concerns about District charter schools, says Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of equal opportunities in athletics for NWLC. Theola Labbé-DeBose, director of communications for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, says it doesn’t collect Title IX data; rather, she says, it’s the responsibility of individual schools to do so.

On the surface, D.C.’s public charters seem to offer little cause for alarm. Slightly more than 40 percent of students in the District attend charter schools. Of the eight public charter high schools, two offer one more boys team than girls. If you count cheerleading, all but one school has an equal number of teams. Many offer sports not found at DCPS schools, like swimming.
Friendship Collegiate Academy has added softball, volleyball, and reinstated co-ed soccer and cross country in the past three years, says Michael Hunter, the school’s athletic director. Teesha Nixon Cunningham, who is entering her sixth year as Friendship’s head girls basketball coach, says while every team struggles for resources at the school, which relies heavily on fundraising, special attention is paid to making sure those resources are fairly distributed.

While Nixon Cunningham’s dedication to her team’s development has resulted in most of them playing for NCAA teams, the outlook for recruiting at other public charter schools is grim. She isn’t sure why.

Events like the tournaments Sankofa holds, which are privately funded, are the best bet for female basketball players in the District. However, that still leaves a whole world of NCAA possibilities untapped for other female athletes. Like Nixon Cunningham, DCPS coaches are paid small stipends, and most schools don’t have a full-time athletic director. Schools often lack an understanding of how to help students meet NCAA eligibility requirements or submit scholarship paperwork, says Johnson.

Club sports and private school, hardly inexpensive alternatives, often seem the last resort for serious high school female athletes. Parents like Beiley, while not able to afford private tuition, have been able to work to improve conditions at their daughters’ schools. But with a median income under $40,000 for families in wards 7 and 8, which boast some of the highest participation gaps, community resources and aggressive fundraising present a bigger challenge. A report from the Women’s Sports Foundation states that black female students are more likely to play for school teams and less likely to play for private teams than white female students.

At least in basketball, Nixon Cunningham doesn’t believe many female sports recruiters are looking to the District. “It is difficult. George Mason University is basically down the street,” says Nixon Cunningham, who started her career as an assistant coach there. “And very rarely was I told to go to a DCPS school.”

* * *

Many of the districts targeted by the NWLC five years ago resolved their complaints with the Department of Education by committing to include new teams for girls and expanding existing teams. Years from now, DCPS could conceivably do the same thing.

For now, Melissa Salmonwitz, the press secretary for DCPS, says she cannot comment on the complaint. DCPS Athletic Director Stephanie Evans did not respond to several requests for comment.

Seeking systemic improvements in Title IX compliance has been difficult. Two laws, the High School Athletics Accountability Act and the High School Sports Information Collection Act, were introduced in Congress in 2007 to create Title IX data collection standards similar to those mandated at the collegiate level, but both failed. Some states, such as New Mexico and Georgia, have their own version of the law for high schools, says Chaudhry.

In 2010, the Title IX High School Accountability Act passed the D.C. Council but then died in a Council committee. Johnson believes this was because the word “accountability” in the law’s title was changed to “compliance”; a District law cannot force compliance with a federal one. The Sankofa Project is currently working with the Mayor’s Office on Women’s Policy to get the legislation, which would encourage transparency in DCPS funding equality, passed again.

Of course, sports are more than just an investment in equality. Studies show that participation in high school sports can lead to lower dropout rates, lower obesity rates, higher grades, and higher future income for girls.

But for a field hockey team that has to play on a field it must care for itself, a lack of basic fairness has more immediate effects. On September 9, Jordan will start her senior year as captain. The school recently announced that the team will practice again this year at Francis Field, the dog waste still included. “We’ve kind of accepted that they don’t really take girls sports seriously in DCPS,” says Fingerhut. “And we’ve settled. I wish we would have fought a little harder but it’s difficult.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

The article originally contained two reporting errors. It originally reported that the Title IX High School Accountability Act died in Congress; in fact, it died in a D.C. Council committee. And it incorrectly identified the National Women’s Law Center as the National Women’s Legal Center.