Flashback: Let's play ball - Kensington Woods High slowly building its athletic programs

Let's play ball - Kensington Woods High slowly building its athletic programs

By Mark Csapo
DAILY PRESS & ARGUS
December 26, 2010

Jacob Honey takes a shot during basketball drills at Kensington Woods' basketball practice facility, a warehouse behind the Cleary University bookstore. In the background are, from left, Michael McMann, D.J. Ehlert and assistant coach Adam Manix. Honey plays three sports at Kensington Woods - cross country, basketball and baseball. "He'd play girls soccer, too, if they'd let him," said his dad, Allan Honey, who coaches the KWoods baseball team. (Photo by GILLIS BENEDICT/DAILY PRESS & ARGUS)

Jacob Honey takes a shot during basketball drills at Kensington Woods' basketball practice facility, a warehouse behind the Cleary University bookstore. In the background are, from left, Michael McMann, D.J. Ehlert and assistant coach Adam Manix. Honey plays three sports at Kensington Woods - cross country, basketball and baseball. "He'd play girls soccer, too, if they'd let him," said his dad, Allan Honey, who coaches the KWoods baseball team. (Photo by GILLIS BENEDICT/DAILY PRESS & ARGUS)

Kensington Woods High School has a problem being recognized.

Never heard of Kensington Woods? You're not alone.

Despite being located on a prime piece of property along the Grand River business strip east of Howell, many county residents are unfamiliar with the charter school.

"A lot of people have never even heard about us," Kensington Woods athletic director Jessie Pratt said. "We don't want to be the best-kept secret. We want people to know about us."

One way that could change is through sports. KWoods, as it is fondly called, has been steadily building its athletic programs, starting four years ago with a running club. Currently the school offers five varsity programs - boys and girls cross country, girls soccer, baseball and boys basketball - that are part of the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

Although KWoods officials didn't add athletics as a way to try to increase enrollment, it's common knowledge that good sports programs will define most any school at any level.

"Academics is most important, but student enrichment is second, and that includes sports," said Jim Perry, principal at KWoods since 1999. "Sports have a bigger impact than other extracurricular activities."

In the last few years, a "grass roots" movement has been plugging along in an effort to offer athletics at KWoods. That task has included the recruitment of student-athletes within its own hallways, efforts of part-time coaches (some of them volunteers), support from parents, and the tireless extra working hours by administrators, mostly that of the energetic Pratt.

"Jessie just pours into these kids," said Karen Doyle, a mother of a freshman on the cross country team. "She's wonderful and she's doing a great job. She believes in them."

Sports part of learning experience
Even though sports just began at the school four years ago with Pratt's running club, Perry said athletics has been a thought nearly from when he began as principal 11 years ago.

"Sports was kind of on the radar, but in the distance," Perry said. "But we quickly have this becoming a small liberal arts college preparatory school that offers extracurricular activities, and that includes athletics."

Just like any traditional public school, KWoods prides itself in offering a solid education and a variety of activities, so naturally next on that list would be to add sports. Athletics almost becomes a selling point for a growing charter school that gets limited publicity from mailings, advertisements and tours of the school - but mostly "word of mouth."

"We're not developing sports and teams to promote our school, but if parents check out a charter school and see that it has good teachers, computers, a drama club, a choir, the arts - but no sports, then that could be a drawback," Perry said. "It helps the school look like what parents and students think of what a high school should look like."

Another reason to add sports is that it helps build lifetime values, such as personal relationships, character, values and self-esteem, all of which is part of the mission statement of KWoods.

"Athletics is huge in character building," said Pratt, who graduated from Milford High and spent time in New York City as a college student and as a teacher in the Bronx. "We want students to be able to find what they need in the classroom and find it on the field. We want to give them a well-rounded experience."

KWoods basketball coach Mike Cenit agrees, and the 70-year-old has been around basketball enough to know. Cenit played basketball in high school and college, briefly coached as a fill-in for an ABA team in Florida four years ago, and did color commentary for Comcast in Flint, covering high school basketball and traditional powerhouse Mott Community College.

"The self esteem of being a varsity player is something that stays with them their whole life," Cenit said. "They don't realize it now, but they'll carry that self esteem with them forever.

"There's one kid on the team - and I'm not going to name him - but he is very, very shy, but he is coming into his own. This is good for him. ...These kids came out on their own. They made a commitment. It's all about commitment. If you quit in high school, you're going to quit in college, and you're going to quit in life."

Athletes also get an opportunity for considerable playing time at a small school, regardless of their skill level. The bulk of KWoods students come from Howell and Brighton, two huge schools where tryouts and cuts are necessary for many sports programs.

Not so at KWoods. That was one reason why the Doyle family was drawn to the school. The Doyles live in the Linden school district, which has had a solid and well-stocked cross country program for several years. But Karen wanted her son David to attend a public school with a small environment, plus a guaranteed a spot running with the cross country team.

Freshman Dave Doyle qualified for the Division 4 cross country state finals and represented Kensington Woods in in the fall. (Courtesy photo)

Freshman Dave Doyle qualified for the Division 4 cross country state finals and represented Kensington Woods in in the fall. (Courtesy photo)

"Is cross country one reason why he went to Kensington Woods? One-hundred percent yes," Karen Doyle said.

"Running cross country for Kensington Woods was a great experience for me," said David Doyle, who qualified for and ran in the Division 4 state finals this fall. "The sport enabled me to walk into a new school and be on a team where I met a lot of new friends. Had I not joined the cross country team, I don't think I would be as plugged into high school as I am."

Getting students interested
The number one stumbling block for KWoods in building these athletic programs has simply been getting enough students to come out for the teams.

The girls soccer team is going strong, growing to 17 girls last spring. But cross country only had eight runners in its third year this fall (five boys, three girls), the baseball team has had 11 players the past two seasons (two girls played the first year), and the boys basketball team currently sits at seven members.

Those numbers are just enough to field a starting lineup and to keep the programs going, but are only a couple injuries or bad report cards away from having to fold a program.

"Jessie and I have had that conversation several times, 'Why can't we just get a couple more kids to come out?'" Perry said. "You would think they (the students) would be a little bit more pioneering because they made the decision to come to a charter school in the first place.

"We've had that critical mass of six, seven, eight kids to start a program, and then we've built from there. It's frustrating, but that's the pattern we've seen in the inaugural seasons. You only get a few kids come out, while others are on the fence, some are intimidated to give it a shot, others are reluctant ..."

It's not for a lack of trying. The tireless recruiting efforts of Pratt have been noticed by her principal, parents and students.

"She nags on everyone," KWoods junior Jacob Honey jokingly said. "She talks to everyone. She does a pretty good job advertising the sports because she talks to a lot of kids."

But even the student-athletes like Honey have had a hard time convincing fellow students to come out for a team.

"I've tried to talk to people, but it's hard to convince them," said Honey, who plays three sports - cross country, basketball and baseball. "(The students) don't really pay attention to sports. I think once we start winning, it might attract more people."

This winter, Pratt tried to start a girls basketball team and a ski team. Only two girls came out for basketball and briefly practiced with the boys team before quitting. Less than a handful of skiers showed interest for a team, so Pratt decided to form a ski club with a couple of possible trips to Mount Brighton this winter.

Another explanation for the low numbers is the schedule at KWoods. The school has about 275 students, but only about half of them are in the usual traditional classroom setting during the day. The other half are in the FlexTrac program, which takes place in afternoon and evenings mainly through computer-based courses. Most of the athletes are students who go to school during the day, with only a few coming from the late program.

"We've got all these kids walking around, some who look like they can play ball," said Allan Honey, Jacob's father who plans to coach the KWoods baseball team for a third year this spring. "It's very frustrating. Maybe not enough word got out and others might not believe there's a team. Maybe in the Flex program, they don't even hear about it."

"Many FlexTrac students don't do extracurriculars at Kensington Woods," Pratt said. "However, there are some that do and we love it when they do."

If you build it, will they come?
Another part of KWoods' problem in trying to build athletic programs is finding a permanent place to play.

The Bears have shuffled somewhat like nomads for three years, searching for places to host events or even just to practice. Those area sites have included Wildwood Ranch, Possum Hollow at Kensington Park, Page Field, Genoa Township Fields, Thompson Lake Park, the Howell Armory, the Howell High freshman baseball field and even in a warehouse.

Some sites are rented out to KWoods, while other organizations don't mind sharing facilities with the school. It's a temporary fix until KWoods can build its programs and eventually construct fields of their own.

"If they get land for some fields, that would be a big help," said Honey, whose baseball team was once chased off Bennett Field by the recreation league during a practice. "We were lucky enough to get a field at Wildwood Ranch, but there are a lot of molehills there."

KWoods, which is chartered through Central Michigan University, rents from and shares facilities with Cleary University, including its main classroom building. Pratt said her school's goal is to have all of KWoods' athletic facilities at one site, maybe even sharing fields and the cost with Cleary. But there are no firm plans by either school to develop athletic fields, although a plan has been talked about by Cleary to build a community fitness center.

"We have the property and do intend to develop some outdoor athletic space, but right now there's nothing on the calendar," said Gary Bachman, facilities manager for Cleary.

But when the basketball team needed a place to practice, Bachman offered the warehouse behind the Cleary bookstore, basically in an act of one neighbor helping another. It's not a glamorous spot, but it works for now.

"We could be embarrassed by where we practice, but we choose not to be," Perry said. "We kind of have to make do with what we have. It's not an ideal situation, but our approach is to put the team together first, then build from there."

Future of KWoods sports
Officials at KWoods envision becoming a school with about 500 students maximum, which would put them into the Class C range in all sports. Athletic programs would be added along the way with no particular timetable to follow.

"We will be adding more sports as students demand them," said Pratt, who teaches art at the school and is also the director of student enrichment and marketing. "It's just a matter of interest."

Pratt envisions KWoods possibly forming a league with other similar-sized schools in this region. Some of those schools could include International Academy of Flint, Madison Academy in Flint, Charyl Stockwell Academy in Hartland, Pontiac Academy of Excellence, Trillium Academy of Taylor, Faith High in Burton and Lansing Christian — some schools the Bears already compete against.

"We want to create our own little network of schools in the area," Pratt said. "It's a matter of choosing schools our level so we don't get blown out of the water."

Taking their lumps will be part of the process. The baseball team has yet to win a game, and members of the basketball team have already been prepared by their coach to experience the "thrill of defeat."

"There is no doubt we want to win. Nobody likes to lose," Cenit said. "But if we lose, it's not a tragedy. The goal is to build a winning program, but you have to take it one game at a time. First you have to win one game, then you have to win two, then you have to win three ...

"It's ambitious that a school this size can field a basketball team. We're all making a commitment. That's what it's all about, commitment."
It will be a long process, but it's a goal to which the small-but-determined staff at KWoods is dedicated.

"If we have the facilities, the athletes, the coaches and the equipment, then I'm behind it 100 percent," Perry said. "Even if we only have seven kids on the team and we're working on a shoestring budget with a volunteer coach, it's real and it's going to happen. We're going to push forward and make this happen."