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Sculling for Success
A dozen or so Chicago teenagers in black sweatsuits are lolling around on the dock at Penn's Boathouse, taking a well-deserved break from a morning of strenuous practice. One young man complains about suffering from "permanent butt sore," but admits, "I'm addicted. I can't stop rowing."
   In the few months since the Chicago Rowing Project began, many of its participants have already become hooked. Kenneth Alpart, C'87, a former rower for Penn who is now president and executive director of Urban Options, the foundation that created the team, hopes to turn their enthusiasm for a sport typically dominated by wealthy high schools into an opportunity for personal development -- and even college scholarships -- for students in one of Chicago's poorest communities. He brought the Urban Options Rowing Team to Philadelphia this past spring, shortly before its first race, to use Penn's rowing facilities and to spend time on campus.
   Alpart, a trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, founded Urban Options in 1996, using a percentage of the profits from his own trading company to provide grants to arts and education programs serving disadvantaged youth. About a year ago, he decided to shift the foundation to a more hands-on focus. "I like working with kids, and I'm making good money, so I feel it's something I had a responsibility to do," he explains. Urban Options' first major project was a concessions-stand business run by student hockey players; the profits funded educational programs. (A classmate of Alpart's, Rona Heifetz, C'87, helped launch this project. Having served as program director for Urban Options, she has now moved on to start another initiative.)
   Then Alpart hired Michael O'Gorman, a coxswain at Penn who competed on the U.S. National Team in the World Championships from 1987 to 1992, to work for his trading company. O'Gorman suggested forming a rowing team in a community that needed more recreational and educational opportunities. Crew, they agreed, would be a great sport to introduce, "because natural ability is not as important as determination and effort," Alpart says. O'Gorman is now a volunteer coach for the team.
   They brought the rowing program to Manley Career Academy, a predominantly African-American public high school in North Lawndale, on Chicago's west side, where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The school's graduation rate is less than 60 percent. Alpart recalls that they caused quite a stir when they walked through the school with a crew shell one day trying to recruit students. "We're starting this crew team," they explained. "But what's different about this team versus other teams is that the focus is not sports, it's education, job training, and creating opportunities to have jobs and go to college and build self-esteem."
   Malcolm Hawkins, a 14-year-old high school freshman, was unfamiliar with rowing when Urban Options came around. "It being a new sport, I wanted to try it. I came out and it was really fun, so I kept doing it." Since joining the team, he says, "My listening skills have improved a lot. I listen to the coxswain a lot and have a lot of respect for my teammates, so when anybody says something, I take heed and listen."
   In addition to 10 hours a week of rowing practice, the team members attend mandatory study sessions, receive tutoring, listen to guest lecturers, and get help finding summer jobs. While visiting Philadelphia in the spring, they attended classes with Penn students and listened to undergraduates at the DuBois College House discuss their experiences as African Americans at Penn. "Our goal," Alpart says, "is to keep these kids in high school and to get them interested in going to college, thinking ahead, and giving them choices other than the gangs, which right now is the best economic choice they have."
   This school year, in addition to recruiting more students from Manley, Urban Options plans to open its rowing program to two more area high schools, which would practice together, but compete against each other in races.
   There have been numerous obstacles to overcome, from Chicago's limited rowing facilities to the city school board's refusal to assume liability for the team, which has cost the program precious dollars in insurance premiums. And before they could even stick an oar in the water, most of the students had to be taught how to swim. Urban Options has already spent the bare-bones $25,000 budget set aside this year for the rowing program and has been continually trying to raise more funds while meeting its immediate needs with as little money as possible.
   But even with these pressures, Alpart says he finds his work with the foundation -- and the students -- to be a pleasant departure from the demands of his money-making job. "It's a good change from trading, which is really pure capitalism -- competitive and not really humanistic. It's a good balance for me to have something more humanistic to keep my sanity."
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 8/25/98