An unlikely thing saved Marcus Major, a bright kid from a tough West Philly neighborhood: squash.

As a middle schooler, he was "troubled - hanging with bad kids, doing the wrong things." But a chance encounter with people recruiting for an after-school program changed his life, and now Major, 19, is a poised young man with a purpose, headed to Cabrini College next year to study psychology.

That's why SquashSmarts exists. Ostensibly, the intensive after-school program is about the game you would more commonly associate with prep schools and the Ivy League. But really, it's about closing gaps a troubled school system can't fill, about giving young people a place to go and things to aspire to. It's about getting them through high school and helping them succeed in college.

"We're trying to open up the world to them," said Steve Brown, one of the nonprofit's academic directors. "A lot of families don't know they have choices. We're trying to show them what's possible."

SquashSmarts works with 120 fifth- through 12th graders, seeking out mostly those from traditional public schools. Its two biggest feeders are Roberto Clemente, in Hunting Park, and McMichael, in West Philadelphia.

The organization doesn't go after the best students or the top athletes, executive director Stephen Gregg said.

"We're looking for kids who can commit," Gregg said. "We are interested in a child who's showing up. We are interested in a child who's respectful. If they have all Fs, that doesn't bother us as long as we know what we're dealing with."

There is no cost to families to participate, and SquashSmarts picks up the tab for everything, from equipment to travel. Students are required to attend practice two days a week and every Saturday - an hour and 15 minutes of academics, an hour and 15 minutes of squash.

But the program's reach is much wider than a few days a week. Squash-Smarts staff helps with high school selection, SAT prep, and college visits. They send students to summer camps across the country and even abroad. They coach families in filling out financial aid forms when the time comes.

"Squash has done everything for me," said Major, a senior in high school at a cyber charter who joined SquashSmarts in seventh grade. "It was like a dad in my life. It's broadened my horizons, and let me know that there's more to the world than just Philly."

The SquashSmarts model began in Boston in 1995, and soon expanded to New York City's Harlem. Philadelphia launched in 2001. Each organization is its own stand-alone nonprofit organization, but the groups share ideas, and their students square off against each other in tournaments.

The program says it has 100 percent college placement among students who come as fifth graders and stay through high school. It also provides support to SquashSmarts graduates in college.

With seven full-time staffers, four part-time coaches, including Major, and an annual budget of $500,000, the organization is completely funded by philanthropy. Its offices and courts occupy the second floor of the Lenfest Center, a community center on a bleak block in North Philadelphia; some students attend a second location in West Philadelphia.

Students come to the program with a wide range of skills and needs.

"We have some students who are barely able to add, and some who can do algebra," said Brown, the middle school academic director. "We're trying to plug in a lot of the holes they have in their classrooms. We did geography recently and the kids said, 'We've never had geography.' Some of them couldn't even find the U.S. on a map."

The academic focus is math and literacy, but extras sometimes glossed over or absent in public schools are big, too - art, science, community service.

And the squash part?

Aaliyah Galloway, a sixth grader at Clemente, confesses that her friends who aren't in the program "think squash is weird," she said.

But she knows differently. So does Raphael Mercado, a Clemente eighth grader who loves the program so much he volunteers on days when he's not required to be there.

"I have a tennis racket at home, and I used to just swing it all day," said Mercado, 14. "I just tell people squash is like handball, which we play all the time at school against the wall."

What are some of the good things about SquashSmarts? Mastering backhands, Aaliyah volunteered. Bringing up her science grade because of the help she gets. Going to New York for a trip to play squash, Raphael added.

"We ran laps in Central Park," he said. "We ate ice cream."

Ninth grader Jordan Williams is bright with an involved family, but her mother, Ave Jones, who works in the Philadelphia prison system, is clear: "There's only so much I can give her." Jones feels lucky that SquashSmarts found Jordan and helped her apply to Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, a new school modeled after one of the city's most successful magnets.

"They're extraordinary," Jones said of the SquashSmarts staff. "They've done such wonderful things for Jordan." Besides guiding Jordan to a good high school - a process that felt daunting and disappointing to the family before it had help - attending her middle school graduation, and instilling a love of a new game in her, the program also paid thousands for her to attend a summer program at Phillips Exeter, the New Hampshire boarding school.

What does Jones see for her daughter's future?

"She wants to be an oncologist, and this is helping her," Jones said of the program. "I know she'll reach that goal because of this help."

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