Strickland Middle School students chased after a soccer ball under the glow of street lights Thursday evening. To be fair, they had to wait for the adults to get out of the way before they could start playing on their brand-new pitch.
The $40,000 pitch was donated to the school through a partnership with Major League Soccer team FC Dallas, Southern New Hampshire University and CoServ. After the presentation ceremony, FC Dallas players, many of whom grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and their bull mascot Tex Hooper challenged kids to a match on the red-and-blue plastic field.
The pitch is just the latest addition to the Denton ISD GOAL program. The program, which stands for Guys and Girls Operating As Leaders, is in its ninth year of operation and targets English language learners and at-risk students.
"This creates a new level of buy-in for kids who feel disconnected," Braswell High School teacher and GOAL founder Chris Ice said. "Maybe the disconnect is language. Maybe it's income. But everyone's equal on the soccer pitch."
GOAL started as a lunchtime enrichment program at McMath Middle School. Ice was a teacher there and bonded with 23 at-risk boys over soccer.
"Between them, they racked up 90 office referrals, seven citations from police and extended placements at Davis [School, the district's disciplinary alternative campus]," Ice said. "After a year, we cut their referrals down to a third. They had no citations from police and no placements in Davis. Out of those 23 boys, 20 of them graduated on time."
Today, the program has expanded drastically. GOAL now has 650 kids on 17 teams across six school districts. They participate in soccer tournaments throughout the year, but players also have to keep up their grades and class attendance.
Though there's no data to show a direct correlation between GOAL students and standardized test scores, the program could be a contributing factor as the district makes strides in its bilingual education program.
According to district reports, Denton ISD has 4,370 English language learners, or ELLs, who make up roughly 15 percent of the total student population. Ninety percent of the students speak Spanish, followed by Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.
Passing rates for bilingual students who took the STAAR math test in the third through fifth grades were only one point lower than the total student population this year.
More students are also phasing out of the ELL/English as a second language program based on their achievement level. Last year, 357 exited the program, up from 201 during the 2014-15 school year.
"This is an awesome reflection of how hard the campuses are working to make sure these students succeed," said Teresa Taylor, the district's director of bilingual/ESL programs. "The students are working hard and getting stronger and stronger."
There's still room for improvement, though. Numbers show that teachers still need to work on closing achievement gaps in reading, science and social studies between ELL students and the total student population.
Outside of the classroom, GOAL students have taken ownership of their community. Each GOAL campus club participates in one community service project each year, and team coaches are made up of volunteers mostly from local universities. The program also raises money for scholarships that go to GOAL participants when they graduate from high school.
Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said earlier this week that he's heard some concern from some families when it comes to the uncertainty of immigration reform at the federal level.
"We tell those families that we're going to educate your children regardless," Wilson said. "The school is a safe place for your child. It's a safe place for you. Those parents really want to do anything they can for their children."
Even with an unclear future for immigrants in the U.S. without legal permission, soccer balls still continued to sail into the net at Strickland. A volunteer coach cheered for his players and patted them on the backs. Emblazoned on the back of his shirt was the GOAL motto: Familia. Escuela. Comunidad. (Family. School. Community.)
"Those are the pillars that build character for our kids," Ice said. "That's really what builds a person."
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.
FEATURED PHOTO: Children play on a new soccer pitch with FC Dallas players during a dedication ceremony Thursday at Strickland Middle School .