06/12/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Solving the Puzzle of Athletic Excellence and Academic Mediocrity in Urban Schools

It has been well documented that the educational achievement gap expands significantly over the summer months when students are out of school. The disparities are exacerbated as more affluent students participate in summer education-oriented activities with a higher frequency on average than do poor and minority students from areas that are less well off economically.

One possible solution to improving the educational outlook in urban areas over the summer break is to look at how these communities consistently produce some of the world's best athletes and see how this cultivation of excellence can be transferred into the academic arena. Athletics is often the one beacon of excellence in communities that are dominated by substandard schools, high dropout rates, dilapidated housing, abject poverty, illegal drugs, unemployment, teenage pregnancies, violence, and despair.

Ultimately, young people are going to pursue in large numbers and with enthusiasm the areas where they are most valued. Therefore it is no surprise then that young black males are overrepresented in professional basketball and football, because this is often the only area of American society where they perceive the young black male as being valued and appreciated. As a consequence, we see schools across the country in some of the most poverty stricken areas repeatedly producing standout athletes and teams, despite having inferior facilities, less money, and fewer resources.

I asked a player who recently left a high school football powerhouse in an economically depressed area of Miami, Florida what made them so good in football year after year despite all of these obstacles. He said one word -- pressure. He said that there is pressure from everywhere to be great. He noted that he received pressure from peers, pressure from parents, pressure from teachers, pressure from coaches, and pressure from people just hanging out in the community. The pressure to maintain an exceptional standard of excellence enabled them to overcome significant obstacles. This same standard of excellence and pressure needs to be applied to the area of educational achievement from within the community while simultaneously exerting pressure on external governmental forces to provide resources to urban schools on a comparable level to wealthier suburban counterparts.

Public policy and programs such as Team First that operates academic/athletic seminars throughout the year in New York City have the potential to be constructed to encourage the same levels of emphasis, focus, and training in the area of education that we currently see around athletic endeavors. If these poverty stricken areas can produce world-class athletes, then they also have the potential to produce world-class scholars. The widespread occurrence of academic mediocrity and athletic excellence in urban schools presents a significant challenge for students, parents, policy makers, and the collective society. Strategies must be generated to transfer what has been used to cultivate athletic excellence into the academic arena if the potential of these students is to be maximized.