Despite the growing number of afterschool options in Baltimore, there are very few scholastic after-school activities that offer the benefits of encouraging teamwork, leadership, and problem solving, while buttressing in-school academic performance. The Abell Foundation has invested in building a robust system of competitive “academic sports” with programming in roughly half of the 175 elementary, middle and high schools in Baltimore.
1. National Academic League
The National Academic League (NAL) is a competitive scholastic extracurricular program designed to increase middle school achievement, and sponsored by the Abell Foundation since 1993. Nearly 600 sixth-through eighth grade students on 28 Baltimore City public school teams compete bi-weekly in an October through March season, answering a battery of questions in a variety of subjects. The after-school games also require team members to research and present findings on designated topics. The two Baltimore City champions advance to a final NAL competition at the national level.
Over 9,500 middle school students have participated in NAL in its twenty-year plus history. This program aims to increase the number of students attending Baltimore high schools with academic criteria. With nearly 600 middle-school students participating as team members, and 80 City Schools teachers and staff members acting as coaches, mentors, and officials, the National Academic League is one of the most significant academic extracurricular programs in Baltimore public schools.
2. Baltimore Kids Chess League
In 2003, the Abell Foundation in concert with the Baltimore City Public School System (City Schools) launched an afterschool K-12 chess project that now engages nearly 800 children in 45 elementary, middle, and high schools.
Baltimore Kids Chess League enables Baltimore City students in K-12 to learn chess and practice once or twice a week, after school or during lunch, under the guidance of individual coaches – typically teachers, staff, or community members. Participants have the opportunity to compete in novice chess tournaments and the Maryland Chess Association now sponsor 7 tournaments in Baltimore City. A culminating citywide chess tournament is held in May at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.
With the growth of the chess project over the last decade, students in Baltimore City public schools have taken their place in the rigorous competition of the US Chess Association in state and national chess tournaments. Chess teams from Baltimore City dominated the 2015 MD State Schools Chess Championships, taking first place in four of the five divisions. In 2015, four of five Baltimore teams to compete at the US Chess Federation national tournament in Louisville won team trophies.
3. Baltimore Robotics League
The national VEX Robotics Design System offers students an opportunity to learn about robotics and career opportunities across science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) areas. It relies on a competitive Robotics League where middle and high school students can design and program a robot, take part in competition, and refine their robots between competitions. Although extra-curricular robotics teams have operated sporadically in Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) over the last decade, there are few that are retained from one year to another. In 2013, Baltimore City sent only one team to the national VEX robotics tournament, and has seen low participation in Regional tournaments.
The Abell Foundation partnered with City Schools and the Baltimore Robotics Center to launch a Baltimore Robotics League with a focus on rebuilding the 6th-12th grade VEX robotics program. With the support of a City Schools coordinator, the Robotics League provided training, support, and stipends to robotics coaches as well as sponsored 3 “mentor tournaments” for new teams. Many of the competitions and training sessions take place at the Baltimore Robotics Center, a new facility in West Baltimore provided by the Abell Foundation.
These efforts resulted in 39 new competitive robotics programs, an 87% increase from the previous year. At least 52 City Schools provide some level of robotics enrichment. Of those, 46 teams fully participated in sponsored tournaments, including the Johns Hopkins Cup Robotics Tournament. Thirteen programs qualified for the State Robotics tournament, and for the first time, two City middle school teams competed in the VEX World Championships. In addition, 74% of middle and high school participants reported that they decided to work hard in school as a result of robotics and that robotics had connected them to adults they look up to and admire.