Through a challenging, disciplined environment, a revolutionary Virginia school uses tennis to help motivate students to excel in academic achievement, to respect themselves and adult leaders, and to learn core human values.
Those who play tennis know that the sport reflects such character traits as self-reliance, resilience, and the ability to problem-solve. We tend to think of the pastime merely as a metaphor, an athletic pursuit that tests those qualities in a decidedly no-stakes way. At two An Achievable Dream schools in Newport News, VA, however, the tennis–life connection could not be more serious or consequential. The schools, which grew out of an educational tennis program and camp, look to tennis, their official sport, to teach, according to the organization, “discipline, perseverance, confidence, sportsmanship and teamwork.”
An Achievable Dream was founded by Newport News businessman Walter Segaloff , who died suddenly of a heart attack in August, leaving behind a legacy that spans two decades and hundreds of student success stories. The organization operates two schools in a private–public partnership with Newport News Public Schools: An Achievable Dream Academy (kindergarten through 5th Grade) and An Achievable Dream Middle and High School (6th through 12th Grade). Lee Vreeland, chief academic officer of An Achievable Dream, recalls the story of how Segaloff was first inspired to start An Achievable Dream. An Ohio native who had moved with his family to Newport News as a teenager and graduated Newport News High School, Segaloff attended the University of Michigan before returning to Virginia and the family business, which he expanded into a 107-store chain called Virginia Specialty Stores.
As president of the company, Segaloff noticed a disturbing trend: Young men and women who were applying for the full range of jobs, from custodial to executive, lacked the basic social and professional skills required for serious consideration.
“Walter saw people coming in constantly, who maybe had even graduated high school or college, but who were unemployable,” Vreeland says. What happened next is a well known story in Newport News: In 1992, the same year he sold the business, Segaloff gathered area business leaders, many of whom recognized the same problem. He put together a tennis and tutoring program for 95 students that, in time, grew into a full-fledged educational facility with a K–12 program spread over two schools. A third school, An Achievable Dream Academy, in partnership with Virginia Beach City Public Schools, is planned for July 2014; it will begin offering K–2nd Grade, with an additional grade added each year.
Statistics tell the story of where An Achievable Dream students come from and what they’re up against: 78 percent hail from single-parent homes; 98 percent are African-American; and 100 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch upon entry. The triumph of An Achievable Dream is plain in the stats on the other side of the equation: The schools have a 100 percent graduation rate; An Achievable Dream students have been offered more than $2 million in scholarships over the years.
Though academics are the priority, tennis continues to occupy an essential place in life at An Achievable Dream. Dreamers, as the students are called, who play on the high school tennis team rank high in their district and region, and many earn college scholarships. An Achievable Dream also boasts the largest National Junior Tennis League in Virginia and participates in many USTA Junior tennis tournaments. It’s an impressive track record, especially considering that most kindergarteners come to An Achievable Dream never having watched tennis or even having held a racquet. But they pick it up quickly, and continue to learn in weekly lessons through 8th grade, after which it becomes optional, with instruction available after school and on Saturday mornings.
Tennis isn’t the only program that supports An Achievable Dream’s mission. There’s the SAME (Social, Academic and Moral Education) curriculum, which teaches everything from ethics and etiquette to peaceful conflict resolution, and What It Takes, a workforce-readiness program in which representatives from area businesses impart the “soft skills” required for professional success. And, as if the teachers, tennis instructors and administrators weren’t beacons enough, soldiers from the U.S. Army installation at Fort Eustis participate in the morning uniform inspections, help in the classroom and join students on class trips (5 percent of graduating Dreamers join the military). Each morning, the tone for the day is set with a ritual as officers and sheriff’s deputies from the City of Newport News greet students with handshakes and participate in breakfast and group activities.
According to Vreeland, Segaloff—who was Jewish and a devoted supporter of Israel—learned about the character-building aspects of tennis at the Israel Tennis Center. “It’s a sport you can play your whole life,” Vreeland says, explaining why Segaloff and An Achievable Dream have maintained tennis’ central place in the schools. “It teaches manners, discipline and etiquette, reinforcing components that An Achievable Dream works toward.”
Reflecting the role of tennis in life at An Achievable Dream, the tennis coaches don’t just instruct; they also lead the morning program at the schools and reinforce the schools’ academic and social mission. According to Vreeland, Segaloff was a man of many intense passions. “Israel was a passion of his. Vietnam veterans. Wounded warriors.” Vreeland also describes Segaloff as having the “strongest sense of patriotism I’ve ever seen.”
Judi Overbey, tennis director of An Achievable Dream, describes Segaloff (pictured at right) as a pioneer for the way he united tennis and education to solve a community need. “This is the only school like this in the country,” says Overbey, who has been with An Achievable Dream since 1998, with the exception of one year. “There could be an An Achievable Dream in every state. You walk in and feel like you are somebody. Those kids are on cloud nine; they feel that they will be the smartest and the best. They feel an ownership of the building and the program.”
Overbey recalls Segaloff as a humble man who constantly asked what more the school and its tennis program needed. “We told him we needed more court time, so he worked with Parks and Recreation to get use of the local tennis center,” she recalls. For Overbey, who joined the program when there was no access to outdoor courts (“We were hitting balls over a white line painted on a wall to represent the net,” she says), the progress is a tribute to Segaloff ’s relentless pursuit of his goals. “He went after every dime he could get from the business community to fund everything we have,” she says.
Vreeland describes Segaloff as a mentor, a genuinely larger-than-life personality from whom she learned a lot, though he could also be challenging. “We had a phenomenal working relationship,” she says. “He was one of those people that, if you were doing your job, everything was great. But he had extremely high expectations.”
The demanding side of Segaloff, Vreeland says, was more than balanced by his fierce sense of personal loyalty. “He would do anything in the world for you,” Overbey says before recounting the day her uncle died of cancer and she left work to be with her aunt. “Within 30 minutes, we looked up, and Walter had shown up at my aunt’s house. He was always there. He did the things that you didn’t expect someone to do anymore.”
Despite An Achievable Dream’s track record, there are challenges, as there are anywhere that children and adolescents with social-risk factors come together. Regarding the school’s perfect graduation record, Vreeland says that it almost faltered last year, inspiring her to turn the tables on the students in question. “I said, ‘You are not going to mess with our statistic. You’re going to do this if we have to be here around the clock.’”
Lest that story confuse things, Vreeland explains that her passion for graduating students goes beyond the numbers. “What are the chances of a young adult being successful without a high-school diploma? A 17-year old is not capable of making that decision, so we don’t let him make that decision.”
“This can be a very draining place to work,” Vreeland says. “You have no idea what the day is going to hold. But every morning, shaking hands with the students revives you.”
Of course, the ultimate payoff is achieving the ultimate goal, the achievable dream: graduation.
Says Vreeland: “You see that student you fought with, or whose house you went to, and see their face when they walk across the stage for graduation,” Vreeland says. “They didn’t know what it was going to feel like, and in some cases, their family didn’t know what it was going to feel like.”
As for how the schools will move forward without Segaloff, Vreeland has nothing but optimism. “In the last few years, Walter was still involved in fundraising, but had not been involved on the operations side for several years,” she says. “Although there’s a void, the transition is seamless because we have a job to do. If we don’t do our job, children are impacted. He had been quietly preparing for this day. We would’ve thought it would have been 10 years from now, and I think he had every expectation of being here for years, but he had planned for this.”
For more information, check out www.achievabledream.org
The word “hero” is defined as a person who is idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. To see more examples of heroism, and compelling evidence that this sport suffers no shortage of such individuals, click here.