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Of Like Minds: School, YMCA Share Community Connections

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Boston

In 1994, after 18 years of renting classroom space at the central branch of the YMCA of Greater Boston, Northeastern University decided to leave.

But before executive director Joseph Nogelo could spend too much time worrying about the loss of the Y's longtime tenant, Sarah Kass and Ann Connolly Tolkoff, two teachers in search of space for a new school, entered the picture.

Ms. Kass and Ms. Tolkoff quickly made an offer on rent, and a deal was struck. The YMCA had a new tenant, and the City on a Hill charter school had a new home.

But it was more than just a financial transaction.

"It struck me that their approach, mission, and ideas about working with this age group were consistent with the Y's philosophy," said Mr. Nogelo, noting the secondary school's focus on civic education. "I started seeing a whole new potential for the YMCA to have more community partnerships through who our tenants were."

A Long History

Indeed, Mr. Nogelo acted on his instincts. Other community agencies soon filled the rest of the space, including Boston Do Something, a nonprofit group that offers youth-leadership courses, and Women's Express, a publication for young women.

In addition, Mr. Nogelo and others tout the benefits of having City on a Hill students rub elbows with the range of folks who make the Y their home--whether for a night, a semester, or much longer.

Boston's central YMCA dates back to 1912, and, like other Y's, one of its original missions was to provide safe, low-cost housing.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many other Y's were getting out of the housing business, but Boston's central branch stuck with it.

Today, it has 22 permanent residents, including a retired engineer who has lived there since 1949. It also operates a 65-bed men's shelter, and 22 formerly homeless families occupy a transitional housing area.

Northeastern still rents 150 rooms for student dormitories, and 40 rooms are available for short-term travelers.

But change is under way. This year, the YMCA is converting 170 rooms into 88 units of subsidized family housing. That means short-term lodging for travelers will only be available during the summer, when the Northeastern students move out.

No Couch Potatoes

From the beginning, Mr. Nogelo seized on the City on a Hill partnership as an opportunity to create a model physical education program for a generation not known for its physical activity.

It doesn't help that the P.E. programs at many public schools have deteriorated, Mr. Nogelo said. In Boston, he noted, there are schools with swimming pools that have no water in them because they have no money to maintain them or to hire lifeguards.

Mr. Nogelo also wanted to make sure all the students got involved. "Physical education tends to mean those who want to play, do," he said, "while the majority stand on the sidelines and do as little as they can."

In City on a Hill's program, there is no room for couch potatoes. Learning how to swim is a graduation requirement and so is performing a 20-minute cardiovascular workout and walking a 17-minute mile. To meet these goals, students have regular swimming and fitness lessons, and they develop personal plans for improving their overall fitness and nutrition.

Carolyn Guadagno, the coordinator of aerobics at the Y and the school's P.E. teacher, said she has seen significant improvement in the students' attitudes toward fitness since the fall.

"They're learning to become more focused and concentrate on what they are doing," she said, noting that such attention carries over to the students' academic work.

The students also receive free memberships in the Y and are encouraged to use the facilities after school and on weekends, which many of them do.

At first, there was some concern among some of the Y's adult members about the high school students' presence. "I had a number of complaints," Mr. Nogelo recalled. For adults who were used to a quiet midmorning workout, it was an abrupt change to encounter 65 boisterous teenagers in the locker rooms and fitness areas.

"But," Mr. Nogelo added quickly, "I had a lot of others saying, 'It's great to have kids at the Y,' and 'They seem like pretty good kids."'

By exposing the students to regular aerobic workouts at a young age, Mr. Nogelo and his staff hope they will develop a lifelong fitness habit.

"To me, it has to be the best physical education program of any public--and probably any private--school in Boston," he said.

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