Students at Desert Hot Springs' Painted Hills Middle School give sports a thumbs-up.

Some truly good news has arrived for all Palm Springs Unified School District middle school students and their beleaguered parents: Beginning the first week of March, any student can participate in an inaugural afterschool basketball program—for free. All required equipment, and services such as transportation, will be free as well.

The funding is being provided via a grant from the LA84 Foundation, “a nationally recognized leader in support of youth sport programs and public education about the role of sports in positive youth development,” according to a press release from the LA84 Foundation’s partner, Think Together. The foundation’s total grant to Think Together is for $317,128, and will directly benefit some 7,040 students at 88 schools within Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Think Together is Palm Springs Unified’s afterschool and expanded-learning provider, and an organization that “innovates, implements and scales academic solutions that change the odds for hundreds of thousands of California students,” according to the aforementioned press release.  

“We have a whole variety of academic support (we offer)—sports being just one,” said Randy Barth, the CEO and founder of Think Together, during a recent interview. “We have deeper program models around coding, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and making sure that students are reading at grade level. At middle schools, we’re very focused on how kids get prepared for algebra (and establish) algebra proficiency. We think about it programmatically. For younger students, there are two gateways. There’s reading on grade level by third-grade, and then mastery of algebra in eighth- or ninth-grade. If you (succeed) in those two key areas, then you’re on your way. But if you struggle with those two gatekeeper areas, then you’re going to struggle to get to college and beyond.

Barth said Think Together started working with PSUSD a couple of years ago, and now works with the district’s 16 elementary schools and five middle schools.

“Now, LA84—which is built on the leftover money from the 1984 Olympics—decided that one of their top priorities is to fund middle school sports, particularly in lower-income communities. Due to budget cuts that occurred in schools, particularly after the 2008-2009 recession, a lot of middle school sports programs got eliminated.

“What’s happened in middle-class-and-above communities is that school sports have become less important than youth sports, which, today, are more pay-to-play leagues or club leagues. It’s another way that haves and have-nots have become separated. A lot of the parents of children playing in these leagues and organized sports need resources and money to pay for that.”

The students will be organized to play as intramural teams after regular school hours at each of the five schools. The first sport being offered will be basketball. That season will begin the first week of March, and run for eight to 10 weeks. A spring soccer season is planned to begin in early May, followed by flag football in the fall, and volleyball in the winter. The possibilities of inter-school competition, and of tournaments being played among the five different schools, are still under consideration.

“This helps to pay for referees, the transportation, basketballs and other equipment that may be required, like jerseys and all the accoutrements needed to put on sports leagues and tournaments,” Barth said.

Lucy Hansen is the coordinator of supplemental interventions for the Palm Springs Unified School District.

“Our staff is starting the recruiting of students as we speak, and getting them excited about being a part of this initiative,” Hansen said. “We’re making fliers to go out, and if the family wants to know more about the program, we’ll be there to answer any questions. I was thinking (about the fact that) this is new, and with the pandemic—and the amount of time that the students have stayed at home—this is such a great thing for our students. … Just the social-emotional part of being able to work collaboratively with other students, and compete, will be the fun part of it.”

Elena Bosch, the communications and public relations manager for Think Together, explained via email: “PSUSD parents interested in enrolling their middle school students in sports programming should ask their school principal for an interest form, and someone from Think Together will assist in the enrollment process. There’s no deadline to apply, and there’s no cap to the number of students (who) can be served by the grant.”

The grant is bringing more than just opportunities for middle school students; it’s bringing jobs, too.

“The basic structure of our afterschool program is that we have a fulltime site coordinator who’s there every day, and they’re employed by us,” Barth said. “They interact with the school and try to build alignment and cohesiveness with what the school has got going on in their instructional day. … Then, we have part-time program leaders for every 20 students.

“In this case, with the sports, (students will) sign up for these sports clubs and teams. In many ways, it’s like what used to happen years ago, and then school budget cuts came. … So we’ve come back in, and we staff with para-professionals. At the site-coordinator level, they may or may not have a college degree, and often, the part-time program leaders are college students who might be (studying) to be teachers, and they’re attracted to this kind of work. In the Palm Springs area, we actually have some retired seniors who are looking for some additional income and work. So, we have a multi-generational workforce in the Coachella Valley. So, that basic infrastructure is there to allow us to bring in these sports programs.

“An $80 registration fee to go into softball or soccer, or $120 here for a uniform—that’s out of the budget for a lot of our students. So this is giving students an opportunity instead of just staying home.” Lucy Hansen, PSUSD’s coordinator of supplemental interventions

Bosch elaborated via email: “Students will get first-hand experience from a LA84-funded Think Together sports coordinator staffer, a position (for which) we are actively hiring. Program leaders will also lead students through sports programming, and we’re always looking for passionate community members to join the team. Interested candidates can apply at thinktogether.org/jobs.”

PSUSD’s Hansen reiterated that the middle school program is indeed free of charge.

“An $80 registration fee to go into softball or soccer, or $120 here for a uniform—that’s out of the budget for a lot of our students,” Hansen said. “So this is giving students an opportunity instead of just staying home. It’s an opportunity to learn a sport, and maybe they’ve got that gift. Then, when they get into high school, they can pursue it to a further degree. That’s why it’s so important for them.”

We asked Think Together’s Barth—who calls himself a part-time resident of Coachella Valley, as he owns a second home in Indian Wells—if there were any plans for Think Together to expand these after-school sports programs into the other two Coachella Valley school districts.

“We would like to,” Barth said. “Desert Sands does some of this themselves, and they partner with the Boys and Girls Clubs on some things as well. We had conversations (with DSUSD) a number of years ago, before we were anywhere in the valley. Then, over the last couple of years, we did come in, but it was in the middle of COVID, and we were just trying to get staffing and do our basic thing in Palm Springs Unified. We wanted to get that established—and then we can start engaging with the other districts and see if they’re interested. We’d love to be across the valley.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...