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Academics come first at soccer academy



IDEA’s first cohort of sports hopefuls navigate self-learning method.  

By Danya Perez-Hernandez 

As seen in The Monitor

EDINBURG — The day begins before sunrise for 16-year-old Victor Medellin and more than 300 miles away from his home and family. But the sacrifice is worth it, he said, so long as he gets to attend a school that blends his academic goals with his passion for soccer.

“My parents always taught me to excel more, to be more successful than they were. My dad finished his college degree, an engineering degree, and my mom just finished high school,” Medellin said. “I think that’s my main goal, to do more than my parents did. To finish even a doctorate or a master’s in whatever degree I want to graduate in. And I want to play soccer and study at the same time.”

Known by his friends as Buffalo, Medellin’s life has revolved around soccer since the age of 7, when his parents, tired of having him breaking things by kicking them at home, he said, decided to put him in a small league in Tampico, Mexico.

Today, through the IDEA Toros Academy, a school with a junior Rio Grande Valley FC Toros team, Medellin is training under some of same coaches and even some Toros pro players.

He is one of about 50, ninth- through 12th-graders who form part of the inaugural cohort of the academy, where the majority of the students are not only aspiring soccer players, but are also testing the school’s transition into a blended learning model.

The school launched in the fall of 2016 and is the first to have a full-scale blended or personalized learning model among all IDEA schools. This is a self-learning method in which students go through the curriculum on their own, using an online platform while teachers act mainly as facilitators.

For this initial year, IDEA Public Schools partnered with the city of Edinburg to use its Wellness Center as a mini-campus. Walking into the center, students can be found spread around in an open cafeteria-like space, classrooms and even in hallways, wherever they feel comfortable.

“We need to teach our students that learning can happen anywhere,” said Principal Brad Scott. “Our culture here in the United States is moving toward innovation. A lot of startup businesses are in coffee shops, in warehouse-type buildings, so why not education?”

A TYPICAL DAY

Medellin’s day usually begins at 6:45 a.m., getting ready for the first hour-long soccer practice at 7:45 a.m., which usually takes place at the H-E-B Park soccer practice fields in Edinburg led by Coach Rafael Amaya, who serves as the academy’s director.

At about 9 a.m. he and his team head back into the wellness center for breakfast, followed by a meeting with the entire class where Principal Scott and the only two teachers, Sean Ramos and Nora Cuevas, go over daily announcements.

He then opens his laptop, plugs in his earphones, and finds a quiet place in a hallway or joins his teammates at a common area to work on whatever subject he needs.

“For example, these past months, Monday and Wednesdays it was English, Spanish and algebra,” Medellin explained. “Then Tuesdays and Thursdays was physics, sciences and history, or social studies. Then Fridays you have to do projects with a little group, or catch up on what you need.”

Medellin is known for being ahead of the class and working mostly on his own, said Ramos, but his teammates tend to also ask him for help when they don’t fully understand something.

For Ramos, who transitioned to the academy from a traditional middle school classroom, it is important that the students learn to be independent and responsible for their own learning. He can be found walking around the common areas, checking if students have any questions, but there is no traditional lecture.

Because the teachers have to facilitate all subjects, the school hired tutors who come in during the week to help students with specific subjects. One in particular tends to the be the most popular among these students — Toros player Leo Ayala — an engineering major who tutors.

“That’s the same mentality that I grew up with,” Ayala said about putting academics first. “Sometimes it’s hard to see that everyone wants to play professional soccer, but you need something to fall back on.”

Once curriculum time is over, the group is then bused to the fields again at about 3:30 p.m. where they practice again from about 4 to 5:30 p.m.

This is when Medellin goes home, eats, studies and relaxes, unless the professional Toros team is practicing or playing. In that case, the high school junior can be found volunteering his free time helping the team with whatever they need — warm up, setting up cones and even recording the games for the team’s film session.

Medellin doesn’t see this as a sacrifice, but just as another opportunity to continue learning about the sport and what he calls “The reality of soccer.”

“I’m able to see a professional session,” he said. “How they behave, how much attention they have to put in it … how much competitiveness there is within the team. In amateur you compete with everybody else, not inside your team but against the other team, but whenever you are in a pro, you are fighting for your starting point, you are fighting for your paycheck.”

THE PROGRAM

Four years ago, IDEA Public Schools officials began planning a fully personalized learning program, and while developing the model, they thought a current cohort of IDEA students who had been already practicing with the Toros could be the perfect group to start with.

“These kids are very talented soccer players, so I want to make sure that if they go pro, that they have the smarts to navigate once their likely-short (soccer) career is over,” said IDEA Public Schools founder and CEO Tom Torkelson. “I want to make sure these kiddos are ready for whatever life throws at them.”

After being presented with a presentation on personalized learning, Scott, the academy’s principal, traveled to California to visit Summit Schools, which fully sparked the transition to the Toros Academy.

“When I went to California and came back I was fired up, I was really inspired,” Scott said. “It really set the vision in my mind on what we need to do.”

This first vision included the school’s motto, “You are a student before an athlete,” which gets repeated to them every day. If these students don’t keep up with curriculum or seem to be struggling passing a test, they simply don’t play soccer.

Even though the school doesn’t participate in soccer as UIL competition, the students do hold friendly games with other districts and use them as showcases for college scouts. Medellin, for example, already has six college offers at the universities of Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida-Gulf Coast, Washington, Incarnate Word and Brown University.

Medellin is still undecided on a field of study, but would like to study something related to sports management and sports medicine.

For Torkelson, this new endeavor is all about having this type of flexibility, where each student's goal is to attend college, and each might find their own path.

“Everything about it is so flexible,” Torkelson said. “When our kids go out of town for soccer tournaments for a week, we load them up on a bus. The bus has wifi, the teacher goes with them, and literally the school is on wheels. So we don’t have them losing learning time.”

The school has many students on a waiting list and the plan is to incorporate grades 6th, 7th, and 8th, by the 2017-18 school year. But another even greater plan is the construction of its own campus, which will more than likely break ground this fall and be located right by the H-E-B Park.

It is then that IDEA officials plan to incorporate other activities to the mix to allow those who are not interested in soccer to also join a program like this one.

Other schools, Torkelson said, are also excited about adopting a similar personalized learning program, but there are certain cautions they must take before going full-scale, including thinking about the size of the programs.

“This is Brad and his 50 students, and you have 800 students in your high school,” he said. “Let’s really think about all of the reasons this is successful. … I’m not entirely sure how well it would work at all of our schools.”

In the meantime, Medellin and his teammates are using both the field and the classroom to learn as a team, which in Medellin’s eyes is one of the most important and appealing aspects of the sport.

“Knowing that you have teammates that will support you and knowing that if you make a mistake they will be right there,” Medellin said. “They are going to be your family for seven months until the end of the season. Some might depart to another team, some might stay.… You get to know a lot of people, you get to know a lot of styles of soccer they play.”

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