In New Orleans, immigrant high school students find a way to play soccer without state approval
Central American students lack the required paperwork, but thrive on informal school teams
NEW ORLEANS — In Honduras, Carlos Chirinos-Padilla said, it was usually too dangerous to run. Soccer games were short and confined to the street in front of his house. Drug cartels roamed the neighborhood, sometimes forcibly recruiting his neighbors, sometimes murdering them. Carlos and a group of other boys stole space and time when they could, but the violence left little room for sports.
When he fled Honduras for New Orleans two years ago, Carlos, now 16 and a high school junior, hoped for just two things: a quiet place to live and an opportunity to play soccer on a real team. A high school squad, he thought, would be the place to start.
Carlos enrolled at Cohen College Prep, a small high school in uptown New Orleans. For nearly 70 years, Cohen had been largely African-American. As recently as five years ago, the school had no Latino students. But Carlos’ arrival coincided with a demographic shift at the school. Teenagers whose first language is Spanish now make up more than a quarter of the 350 students. Statewide, the number of Hispanic students has tripled over the past decade, from 17,000 in 2008 to 50,000 this year, including nearly 4,000 in Orleans Parish.
Almost as soon as the new students arrived, teachers said, they started asking to play soccer. And Cohen teachers wanted to create a team. Research shows that sports improve a teenager’s grades and behavior, benefits that the teachers believed their new students needed. Many had seen their schooling interrupted by the chaos back home. Some had experienced gang violence or human trafficking.
But the organization that governs Louisiana’s high school sports won’t allow most of the Central American students to play. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association requires all student-athletes to present proof of age (a birth certificate or official immigration papers) along with a Social Security number. Although some of the Central American students are in the country legally or have temporary visas, most do not have the required documents.
Frustrated, Cohen teachers and administrators decided this fall to try something different: They started an unsanctioned team.
Someone to play with
The New Orleans public school system is unlike any other in America. Most of its 80 public schools operate as charters and are run by private organizations using public funds. Students can apply to any institution in the city no matter where they live.
But few of the city’s high schools employ English language learner (ELL) instructors for students new to the language. When the first few Central American students enrolled at Cohen, the high school drafted its Spanish instructor to teach them. By 2015, the number of Spanish speakers grew too large to be handled by one teacher, and the school hired specialists in teaching English as a second language.
Carlos, a lanky teen with chestnut skin and a high fade of well-coiffed curly hair, considered a few schools before choosing Cohen. They were all closer — Cohen is 5 miles from his shotgun house in the Fairgrounds neighborhood — but none seemed as relaxed as Cohen, he said.
His previous home in Olancho, Honduras, was one of the most violent states in a country that, until recently, posted the world’s highest homicide rate. By U.S. standards, his new home is also dangerous. For three decades, Louisiana has had the highest murder rate of any state in the country, and New Orleans is the state’s most violent city. Nationwide, only St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit have higher murder rates.
Still, to Carlos, it feels comparatively peaceful here. He liked Cohen, even if teachers assigned more homework than he’d had in Honduras. After class, he retreated home, where he lives with his mother and sister, to a street so quiet he was sure he could spend all evening outside playing soccer. There was just one problem: He didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood.
“I didn’t have anyone to play with,” he said. “Imagine that.”
So last year, Carlos and other students asked the new English language learner coordinator, Ann Holleman, if they could start a school squad.
Few New Orleans high schools have soccer teams. When charter organizations took over the public schools after Hurricane Katrina, most didn’t even offer football for a decade, preferring to focus on academics. Initially, teachers encouraged the Central American students to try football and volleyball, the sports the school had added since the storm. But most didn’t know how to play, and they found it hard to follow new rules and the shouts of their coaches in English.
“I think it was hard for them to see athletics in school and feel like they couldn’t participate,” Holleman said. “They didn’t understand why we didn’t have soccer. It’s the most popular sport in the world.”
Cohen teachers saw an opportunity to help the Latino teens become part of a community and help turn around their often lackluster academics. Many of the Central American students seemed unmoored, sleeping through class, landing in detention and often dropping out early.
“They had no motivation to make good grades,” said Erik Zavala, who taught many of the Central American students. “A majority of them feel like they won’t have an opportunity to go to college. They’ll just work, they assume. They think it’s not possible for them at all.”
Holleman wrote to the Louisiana High School Athletic Association and asked to create a team. She was surprised to learn about the identification requirements.
“We were told, in no uncertain terms, that it would be almost impossible to have soccer because none of our kids would qualify,” Holleman said.
Since 1982, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plyler v. Doe, ordered the Tyler, Texas, school district to allow undocumented students to enroll, federal law has required public schools to educate all students, no matter their immigration status. But high school athletic associations all have their own rules. Florida requires immigrant students to present U.S. Customs forms, and Mississippi allows noncitizens to play only if they are foreign exchange students. Those policies could violate Plyler, some education advocates say, or create school climates in which some students feel unwelcome.
“From an educational perspective, no possible good is served by creating this kind of caste system in schools,” said Bob Farrace, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Participation in sports and activities builds a stronger connection to the school, leading to higher achievement and a positive school climate. Denying undocumented students the right to participate in activities contradicts everything we know about the crucial task of building a school culture where every student feels known and valued.”
Louisiana’s eligibility director did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But officials in other states say strict eligibility rules help prevent cheating. Birth certificates ensure that the student-athletes are teenagers — and not 20-something ringers. “Proof of bona fide residence,” which several states require, along with strict transfer policies, prevents schools from recruiting outside their attendance zones.
Few states have explicit rules concerning undocumented student-athletes, but several allow students to play, whether they’re U.S. citizens or not. In some, including South Dakota, Washington and Georgia, students who are eligible for school are eligible for sports, provided their grades are good enough.
“In terms of undocumented or refugee children, we would treat them the same as any other child,” said Dan Swartos, the executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. “They’d be eligible at the first school they enroll at following the move to the community.”
Other states allow students arriving from other countries to play after a yearlong waiting period; they can request hardship waivers to compete sooner.
Cohen teachers wanted to appeal the athletic association decision but said some school officials worried that a soccer program might attract more Central American students — and cause Cohen to slide in state academic rankings.
The Louisiana Department of Education issues these rankings based, in part, on how well students perform on state tests. When the charter management organization New Orleans College Prep took Cohen over in 2012, it inherited a troubled school. Just four years earlier, National Geographic had labeled Cohen “America’s Toughest High School,” home to gang and drug violence. Cohen’s leaders had worked hard to build up the school’s reputation and student achievement, raising the school’s performance score from an F in 2012 to a B in 2016, a jump that prompted a visit from then-U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.
But Cohen fell to a C last year, a drop some alumni say led to declines in the school’s enrollment — and consequently its budget. College Prep cited these budget troubles in September when it laid off some Cohen social workers and college counselors. If a school’s ranking drops too low, as happened at another College Prep high school last year, the state can revoke its charter or shutter the school entirely. Regardless, the school was not ready to add soccer.
Resigned, a few Central American students tried volleyball. Carlos just went home after school and slept most of his afternoons away.
A real team
When classes resumed this fall, students again asked Holleman about starting a team. This time, she contacted the owner of a local adult league. Few teenagers played in Crescent City Soccer, but the company’s president, P.J. Lynch, had helped create a club team for an alternative high school, ReNEW Accelerated High School, the year before. Most of the students at ReNEW were either over the age limit or academically unqualified to play state-sanctioned sports, but they still needed an outlet, Lynch said. ReNEW leaders credited the club team with improving players’ grades and attendance.
Holleman asked Lynch if he could create something similar for Cohen. Lynch liked the idea, but he said the Cohen students would need more opponents their age. He approached other New Orleans high schools, both public and private, that didn’t have a sanctioned team. Most had at least a handful of kids from Central America.
“What I saw a lot is these kids were isolated,” Lynch said. “They don’t speak English as well. They’re not going to basketball games or football games. There’s nothing tying them to the school, nothing bringing them into the community.”
Lynch persuaded nine schools, including some private parochial institutions, to join. Most schools didn’t have enough players to field a full 11-player team, so he created a 6-on-6 league, played on a smaller field. Few of the schools created female teams, so Lynch found adult competitors willing to play against Cohen’s girls. His business is for-profit, but he held fundraisers to subsidize the cost of renting a field every Saturday. The schools each chipped in $750 to pay for referees and uniforms.
Cohen special education teacher Katie Lucky-Heard agreed to coach the girls, and Zavala, a 23-year-old who’d come to New Orleans with Teach for America, said he’d help the boys. Neither had coached before, but they possessed an important skill: They both spoke Spanish.
The school announced tryouts in August — with a caveat. To join the team, a student had to stay for tutoring and couldn’t land in detention more than a handful of times. After the school secretary finished announcing the rules over the intercom, in English and in Spanish, one girl stood up in class.
“I’m going to be on that team,” Shayna Muñez said. The teacher told Shayna her grades weren’t good enough, but the sophomore announced she’d do anything to get up to the 2.0 cutoff.
“I am going to be on that team,” she told the class.
Half of the Central American kids wanted to be on the team. One boy who works overnight from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. showed up at tryouts. Teachers complained that the student slept through class. If he joined the team, he might be even more exhausted. But the boy begged.
“Please,” he said. “It’s my passion, the only thing good.”
That boy, who asked not to be named, joined Carlos and a few dozen others for the first practice. The athletic director brought a box filled with green and white Crescent City T-shirts. Paired with school-issued P.E. shorts, he explained, they had a uniform.
Within a week, Zavala said, his students seemed transformed. Because the soccer players stayed after school for tutoring, other Central American kids did too. Everyone’s grades improved, Zavala said.
Shayna pulled her grade-point average up to a 2.63, but she skipped practice once, and the coach took her off the team’s text messaging thread — a punishment that worked far better than detention ever had. That thread had become a lifeline for girls whose conversations started with soccer plays and evolved into talk about boys and family struggles. The coach added Shayna back to the thread, and the girl hasn’t skipped practice or tutoring since.
In late September, the two boys’ squads ran drills after school on the field they share with the football team, almost all of whose players are African-American. Around 5 p.m., the football team’s kicker, an African-American student who didn’t speak Spanish, sprinted over. His squad had lost its last three games, and he was dragging from playing both offense and defense.
“I wouldn’t mind some help,” Andrew Green told the soccer coaches. “Maybe an upgrade at kicker.”
He pointed to Carlos, who was juggling the soccer ball between his head and his knees.
“Let me see you kick,” Andrew said.
Andrew tossed the football to Carlos, then mimed punting. Carlos took a deep breath, kicked, and the football sailed long and low. He scrunched up his face in embarrassment, but a few football players clapped. One threw the ball back, and Andrew urged Carlos to try again. Andrew lingered awhile, watching as Carlos and other boys tried to swing their legs to get enough lift. With each kick, the ball flew longer and higher.
“That’s a field goal,” a football player called as the ball soared downfield.
“Anytime y’all want to join us,” Andrew said, slapping hands with Carlos, “we’re ready.”
Both Spanish- and English-speaking students showed up in late September to cheer on Cohen during its homecoming soccer matches. Teachers set up a buffet of croissants, chips and salsa. Students shook noisemakers they’d fashioned out of water bottles and pebbles.
Lynch had scheduled seven regular matches, plus a two-day championship tournament in mid-October, and the homecoming game was one of the team’s final matches of the year. The high school athletics association prohibits club teams from competing during the sanctioned soccer season, which runs from the end of October to February.
The girls played first that morning, a grueling battle against an adult team.
“Tú puedes,” their coach, Lucky-Heard, called over and over again from the sideline. You can do it.
Though the elementary school field that Crescent City rents does not have bleachers, several dozen spectators stayed for hours to watch the games. They sat on steps or stood along the mesh fence, some holding umbrellas to block the New Orleans sun.
After the girls’ game, Carlos’ team played against a team from De La Salle High School, a private Catholic school.
Carlos and his teammates passed and dribbled swiftly down the pitch and defeated De La Salle 12-2. A team from KIPP Renaissance High School arrived to play the second match at 11 a.m. KIPP’s team was small — only nine players, compared with Cohen’s few dozen — but it included at least one Vietnamese student and several African-Americans trying soccer for the first time. Cohen won 9-1.
Carlos danced on the sidelines but paused to remind himself that winning didn’t really matter. Although his team would go on to win the championship in late October, eventually they would lose, and he would still love playing, even in defeat.
What Carlos really cherished, he said, was the space, the freedom to run.