In the shadow of the Marlins’ new baseball stadium, a smaller edifice in the name of sports has emerged in Miami’s Little Havana.
It’s called SLAM!, short for Sports Leadership and Management, and at first it appears to be like any other inner-city public school.
And according to principal Alex Tamargo, that’s no coincidence.
“The misconception is you’re coming here and play sports,” he said. “That’s not exactly right. Yes, we’re going to have sports. For boys and girls, there are over 18 sports available in the building. However, you’ve got to go to college.”
To get them there, SLAM! offers the same academic core curriculum as other schools. But the electives are based around careers in sports. Sports medicine, sports marketing and even sports broadcasting are offered for middle schoolers and high schoolers.
Principal Tamargo is a former star baseball player himself. He was a high school teammate of Alex Rodriguez in the early 1990s at Miami’s Westminster Christian.
Part of his job now is to prepare the athletes to also be “mathletes.”
“One of the neat things here, for example, the math lesson in 7th grade that’s going on now — they’re doing long jumps in the classroom,” he said. “They’re doing wall sits, and they’re doing how many pushups in a minute to prepare for integers and fractions. All of the data they collect from the exercise they are doing is going to be used for the next lesson.”
Those who designed the curriculum here know generations of sports fans have learned math by calculating batting averages and shooting percentages.
Wilfred Rivera, a former Division I college football player at Florida Atlantic University, teaches 7th grade math, and doubles as the school’s track coach.
“Lately I’ve been incorporating basketball, just with teaching the kids how to do negatives and positives,” River said. “They basically were learning how to jump forwards and backwards using basketball terms. And then I had some football players that I used negatives and positives. Losing yardage, obviously you’re going backwards with negatives, and gaining yardage, going forward.”
Rich Hofman, SLAM!’s athletic director, conducts baseball practice after school a few miles away.
“It allows them to begin a career path, especially an athlete, at a much earlier time, where they can, at least by the time they finish high school, either be way ahead of the game with folks that are freshman year in college, or say, ‘Well, I don’t really want this, so I’m gonna try and do something else,’” Hofman explained.
Hofman’s in the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame. He won over 1,000 games as a baseball coach including two national titles at Miami’s Westminster Christian where one of his pupils was A-Rod.
But he admits most of his current students will never attain big league status on the field.
“We want these athletes to go on in their career — play college,” he said. “Our goal is to get them all a college education, possibly a scholarship or even further in a few cases. But most of these young people are going to be professionals in something other than a sport.”
Catcher Jorge Fernandez, 16, said he knows his priorities.
“People tell me, ‘Yo, it looks like you’re just going there to play baseball, and they’re not going to worry about your grades,’” Fernandez said. “But the thing is, the first they said is that you have to keep good grades. Because if you want to keep on playing ball to go on to college, you have to have the grades. Baseball comes second, grades come first. So what I took it as is I’m going to go there, study and play baseball. That’s my life.”
But it’s not all about the boys. Outside on the school’s rooftop yard with the baseball stadium in the background, there was a different kind of exercise taking place.
This was a dance class consisting of all girls who — by the way — make up about half of the school’s more than 800 students.
Jocelyn Hernandez and Dania Rodriguez were there for the same reason as the boys.
“I picked SLAM! so I could be able to play basketball, and to get a better education and study sports medicine,” Hernandez said.
“I came for the sports broadcasting, because I do see a future for that. I like how everything works, and how everything is behind the scenes,” Rodriguez said.
Field trips at SLAM! include visits to nearby Marlins Park, where students can shadow team executives and get a behind-the-scenes look at running a major league team, and producing the broadcasts.
Speaking of producers, also behind the curtain to assure the school’s success is rapper and music producer Armando Perez, otherwise known as Pitbull.
He grew up in Little Havana, and through a spokesperson, said he’s helping the school publicize and fundraise.
At a charter schools conference in Washington this summer, Perez summed up its mission.
“SLAM! is Sports Leadership and Management,” he said. “It’s a charter school that we’re going to open up so that the kids are engaged; they’re entertained; and more than anything, they’re educated through things that they love to do.”
Pitbull and SLAM!’s creators hope it’s the first of many more sports-based charter schools around the country.