- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - To improve student achievement in Oklahoma City’s high-poverty public school system, a wealthy businessman is focusing not on the classroom, but on the field.

Tim McLaughlin and his wife, Liz, believe that by increasing participation in sports, schools in the state’s largest district will see an improvement in attendance, grades and overall student performance.

With that in mind, they started Fields & Futures, a multimillion-dollar initiative to rebuild 44 rundown athletic fields at middle and high schools in a district where nearly 90 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Since 2012, six fields - two football/soccer fields, two baseball fields and two softball fields - at two middle schools have been renovated with seven on track to be completed by the end of the year. Participation in football and soccer doubled at one middle school, McLaughlin said. He said more data will be collected as the project progresses.

“What motivates a lot of kids? Athletics does,” said McLaughlin, a partner in Oklahoma City soccer team Energy FC. “So if you’re catering to that motivation, then what’s the end result you’re getting? … You have to make your grades to stay eligible, which is going to give you a better chance to graduate, which will give you a better chance of getting a job, which will give you a better chance of taking care of your family, which will give you a better chance to be a better citizen.”

Oklahoma City Public Schools athletic director Keith Sinor said that where fields have been overhauled, the children are now proud of their schools and their teams.

“When they go to suburban districts and see the nice facilities they have there, they don’t feel bad because they have the same at their place,” he said of the fields and the schools located on the south side of the city.

About 55 percent of high school students take part in sports nationwide, according to a National Federation of State High School Associations survey. But McLaughlin said that number was about 30 percent in the Oklahoma City public schools at the time Fields & Futures was created.

McLaughlin’s ideas are backed by research from the NFSHSA. A report showed adults who took part in high school athletics and activities had better school attendance rates, better grade-point averages and showed more leadership potential than those who didn’t.

The study, based on findings from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, also said middle-school children who played organized sports had a “higher sense of self-worth and better social skills” than non-participants.

McLaughlin, who had been an executive for his family’s company until its majority share was sold, said he tries to dissuade the focus on collegiate sports scholarships since there are so few available. Instead, he said, the program aims to focus on life lessons, such as discipline and dealing with success and loss.

The district is also dealing with a coaching turnover rate of 35 percent, McLaughlin said, because they don’t have the resources - or even the interested kids - to field a team.

Fields & Futures, which is sponsored by a nonprofit as it works to achieve its own tax-exempt status, is working with several other local foundations and organizations to provide equipment and other resources. The organization is about $2 million short of its $5 million goal.

Roosevelt Middle School’s fields have yet to be renovated. Tires are strewn about an overgrown, uneven field on which one can play football, soccer, baseball and softball. The outdoor basketball court is sprouting weeds, and just one of the four hoops has a net.

About three miles to the southeast, the fields at Jefferson Middle School feature football and soccer goals, manicured grass, dugouts for the softball teams and a new sign welcoming visitors.

Though no kids were playing on the fields during a muggy June day, 15-year-old Khanni Saengphachanh said she noticed a big difference. Saengphachanh, who was at a nearby park and splash pad, attended the middle school before the renovations and said the fields were often used as a gathering spot for gangs and fights and covered in trash.

By its appearance, it looks safer, she said.

“It looks a lot better,” she said. “I think it’s good.”

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Associated Press writer Kelly Kissel in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.

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Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KristiEaton

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