A high school cafeteria seems like a logical place for a food fight, but sword fighting? Isn't that a little extreme? Not if you're at Burlington High School -- two afternoons a week, members of the school's fencing club hold their practice in the BHS eatery. They push aside the folding tables, don their protective gear, and grasp their sabers for a spirited round of lunges, thrusts and parries.
Fencing is not a varsity sport at BHS. The club is not sponsored by the school, but by an extracurricular program called Burlington After School. Nine BAS coordinators, stationed at each of the city's public schools, run the largely grant-funded effort that serves more than 45 percent of Burlington's public school students. Last year students at BHS alone participated in more than 10,000 hours of activities.
Many of them involved breaking a sweat; though the high school's BAS program does offer options such as pottery and debate, more than half of the 18 BAS clubs revolve around athletics.
You might assume that school administrators or health-care professionals are pressuring the kids to exercise more. Just last month, a Northwestern University study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that a third of U.S. adolescents have poor cardiovascular fitness, putting them at a higher risk for medical problems later in life. And experts across the country warn that poor nutrition and an increasing number of digital distractions have caused an epidemic of obesity among the nation's youth.
But BHS program coordinator Hannah Hurlburt says it's the students who are pushing her for more athletic options. Her federal funding actually prioritizes academic and arts-related activities, but she says the kids always ask for more sports. "A lot of the kids want to be active," she insists.
The trick to getting teens to participate is to give them what they want, Hurlburt says. She explains that all of her clubs are driven by student interest; if the kids express interest in an activity and she can find affordable equipment and instructors, then, more often than not, she'll let them try it. She's had to say no to rugby -- "field space is really hard to get," Hurlburt says, "and you can't always find instructors." She also turned down paintball. But her club list now includes unconventional activities such as fencing, yoga and hip-hop dancing. A kendo group -- dedicated to the ancient Japanese art of Samurai swordplay -- will begin this spring. Twenty-seven students have signed up to participate.
Hurlburt explains that these activities often appeal to kids who don't play the usual varsity sports. That's true for junior Nancy Villasana. The 16-year-old, who prefers to spell her first name "Nan-Z," shows up for fencing practice one Friday in January. She slips on a chest plate, removes her iPod headphones, and puts on a helmet.
After warming up, Villasana faces off against Sean Sullivan, one of the University of Vermont fencers who coaches the club. Villasana hefts her saber and shuffles back and forth across the tile in her Converse hightops.
The two engage in a bout that lasts 10 minutes or so. Afterwards, Villasana removes her helmet and staggers to a table to rest. "Oh, that was close," consoles Sullivan, the victor. "You had me on the run."
Fencing is a real workout, says Villasana. "Oh, my God, it is," she gushes. Even without the fancy footwork, just holding up the metal saber for that long can be tough, she says. "It builds up your arms."
Villasana used to play basketball. She was on the freshman girls' team at BHS but quit after her first year. Schoolwork and a part-time job left little time for practice. "I couldn't manage my schedule," she says.
The fencing club, by contrast, is less structured. Today, for example, Villasana has come to practice half an hour late -- she was doing homework in the BAS homework club, in preparation for next week's exams.
And fencing has a certain allure that basketball lacks. "It's fun," she says with a smile. "You can stab people."
When students are sticking it to each other in fencing club, they're not making mischief on the street. And that's partly the point, according to Hurlburt. Giving teens an opportunity to fence, or meditate, or lift weights doesn't only keep them in shape. "It gives them something to do," she says. "It keeps them out of trouble. That's important to me."
Sitting in her windowless office near the school's electronic arts recording studio, the slim, blonde twentysomething woman explains that, technically, she works for the Sara Holbrook Community Center. But she'd rather spend time here, she says. "It's really effective to be here in school." It clearly helps her to build relationships with both students and the faculty -- several people greet her as they walk past her open office door.
Hurlburt's tiny workspace is crammed with equipment. Fencing foils rest in a stand near the door. Tall metal shelves in one corner hold art supplies, blue yoga mats and several soccer balls. A massive metal cabinet filled with fencing jackets and helmets looms behind her as she sits at her desk.
Perched atop the cabinet is one of Hurlburt's prized possessions: a giant, sparkling, silver-and-purple trophy. It's from last year's Powerhouse Talent Competition at the Flynn Center. Hurlburt serves as the advisor for the hip-hop dance club; last year, two of her students took first place in the age-17-and-over event. "They said I could keep the trophy," she says with a smile.
Hurlburt, who started here in 2002, admits the victory meant a lot to her. She still has the tapes the judges made during the competition; after each act, they recorded their comments. Listening to the tapes, you can hear a lot of applause and cheering after the two boys from BHS perform. "And you can hear the judges saying, 'Oh, man, oh, man, look at this,'" she goes on. "Every once in a while, when I'm having a bad day, I play those tapes."
Hurlburt, a lively, fast talker, says she's always impressed by the amount of energy her dance students demonstrate. "These kids aren't lazy at all," she insists. "I don't know where that stereotype comes from. I get tired just watching them."
Hurlburt also deals with various equipment needs. Lately she's been spending a lot of time online, trying to find affordable shinais -- the bamboo weapons used in kendo. She's only found one local store that sells them, and is convinced she can find a better deal. "Kendo is mega-expensive for equipment," she concedes.
Indoor soccer, by comparison, was easy. Hurlburt says a group of boys approached her about having a club this year. All of them, she notes, are immigrants and refugees, mainly Bosnians and Somali Bantus. Some play on the school's varsity and junior varsity soccer teams. When the season ended, they wanted to continue playing.
Senior Mirnes Pasic explains that he could have played another sport, but he and his fellow Bosnians have an "emotional" connection to soccer, which he calls football. The game is far more popular abroad than it is in the U.S. "This is the only thing I like," Pasic says.
Thanks to Hurlburt, some two dozen clubmates can play two afternoons a week at the Champlain Valley Fairground's Nordic Soccer Center. She found them a coach -- a Bosnian man -- and checks in to make sure everyone has rides and gets along. Hurlburt is particularly proud of this club, she says, because it gives some of the kids from other countries a chance to take part in a familiar activity.
And, she points out, the relationship the club has developed with the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds, which runs a popular youth league, has been beneficial for the players. Jim Goudie, manager of the soccer center, is happy to see the BHS kids using the facility. "They love it," he says. "They'll come whenever they can. They were here during the Christmas break."
Some of them have even joined his teams, Goudie adds. "A lot of these inner-city kids, they're good players," he observes. "We've picked up a couple of kids from that program. It's worked out well."
BHS principal Amy Mellencamp also has praise for the BAS program. She likes how it keeps students "connected to school" in a way that's different and fun. "I think it really hits a nerve with them," she says. "It's really filled a nice niche."
But Mellencamp concedes it can be a struggle to fund -- grants don't cover everything, and the school budget is chronically tight. Hurlburt argues that the budget could cover what she's doing by adding a penny to the tax rate, but she's not optimistic this will happen. "Everyone thinks these programs are fantastic," she says, "but nobody wants to fund them."
For now, Hurlburt is just glad she can give teenagers opportunities to be active. Kids come to her with club ideas because they want to have fun, she says. But Hurlburt believes they also have a subconscious desire: "They want to do something healthy," she says. "They're not even realizing it."