High school coach uses the soccer field to get first-generation students into college
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | July 17, 2017
High school athletes at big schools know that sports can be a sure route to college. But for students at smaller schools that’s not as well known, especially in immigrant families where sports isn’t seen as a way to get — and pay for — a higher education.
Alex Guerrero, 18, had never heard of sports as a way to college. The son of Mexican immigrants, Guerrero attended a small public charter high school in Lincoln Heights. He found out through his soccer coach, Baltazar (Balti) Rodríguez, that being part of the soccer team could be his ticket to get into college.
“I never thought I would be able to get a scholarship for playing soccer. I just practiced hard and let Balti guide me,” said Guerrero, who graduated last month, part of the second graduating class of Alliance Susan and Eric Smidt Technology High School. Guerrero was recruited by San Diego Christian College, where he will play soccer and study business and marketing thanks to a scholarship.
Olivia Valentín, a single mother who immigrated from Mexico, was surprised to learn that her son had a shot at an athletic scholarship.
“I never heard before about the possibility that my son could get into college with a scholarship for playing soccer. That’s something he always loved, but thanks to Balti he could use that to have a way to access college. I’m profoundly grateful to the coach for what he did for my son,” she said.
Her son, Adrian Barajas, graduated last year and received a scholarship from San Diego Christian.
Valentín said the kind of attention her son received from the Alliance Smidt Tech staff, and particularly from Balti, was beyond her expectations.
“My son saw in the coach not only the father figure he didn’t have at home, but also the only role model in his life of a person who had attained a higher education.”
Rodríguez, 37, has been a soccer coach for 12 years and has made it his mission to help his players get into college and be successful. He puts in many extra hours to help his students. “It’s like a second full-time job.” He says that’s the kind of dedication kids in his community need.
Rodríguez started working in education in 2004 as a teaching assistant at LA Unified’s Independence Elementary in South Gate. In 2007 he started the athletics program at Wallis Annenberg High School, a charter school in South Central. Since 2013 he has coached boys and girls soccer at Alliance Smidt Tech.
Working for a charter school means having fewer resources, he said, but that doesn’t stop him from helping his students succeed in school. Since 2007 all of the students he has worked with either as a coach or a teaching assistant have gotten into four-year colleges, and at least 15 of his soccer players have been awarded athletic scholarships at four-year universities. Some of them have received “full ride” scholarships.
“Sports is a metaphor for life. It builds character, and that, along with discipline, are the things that will help you get into college and be successful,” he said.
Rodríguez graduated from the private Catholic St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, where he also played soccer and later became an assistant coach. He says his high school experience was different from his students’, particularly as a student athlete.
“In those kinds of schools you only worry about showing up for practice and play, while here I have to teach students the game as they don’t have the background for athletics,” he said.
Even though Alliance Smidt Tech doesn’t have a soccer field, a gym, or any other kind of sports facilities on campus, the students have still won championships.
This spring the Alliance Smidt Tech soccer team won the CIF freeway league boys soccer championship in its first year of participating. Alliance Smidt Tech serves close to 500 students — 95 percent Latinos and over 90 percent eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. The school is part of Los Angeles’ largest charter network, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, which operates 28 middle and high schools in Los Angeles with 12,500 minority and low-income students.
While most LA Unified high schools have sports facilities, finding a field for practice and games was a challenge for Rodríguez and his team. They had to pay a fee to use a city park nearby, and occasionally they were able to rent facilities at LA Unified high schools. But that rarely happened because most district schools are not very enthusiastic about sharing their facilities with charters schools, he said.
“District schools always make it difficult for us to rent their sports facilities because their games obviously are the priority and most of the times their schedule does not accommodate ours,” he said.
Rodríguez is glad his students have seen his struggles to support the team because it teaches them about dedication.
“If you love what you do, you’re going to make it happen no matter what. I hope the struggles they have seen have taught them to face adversity, and that their experience in athletics has prepared them for college.”
Miguel Palomar is another student who played for Rodríguez at Alliance and got an athletic scholarship. His parents immigrated from Mexico, and he will be the first in his family to go to college. He will major in psychology at the University of California at Merced and hopes to become a detective.
“Everyone on the team could see his efforts, finding a place for us to play, taking us to games with his own means, so the only way we could pay back was winning games,” Palomar said.
“I think if I would have attended one of the big schools in my neighborhood I would have ended up in gangs or just making trouble out there,” he said. “Thanks to soccer, I focused more on getting better grades and working hard to get into college.”
Rodríguez, also of Mexican descent, described how soccer is such a big part of his culture. “We watch the games constantly on TV and play the game at some point, but we don’t understand that sports can be an educational component.”
He believes he can make a significant impact in the lives of his students by helping them learn about the resources and opportunities they can have through athletics. “I keep doing this because seeing them getting into college, it’s so rewarding. Watching them grow and succeed is the reason why I’ll never stop doing what I do.”
Guerrero said he learned from Rodríguez how to be responsible on and off the soccer field, as well as time management and discipline. “He demanded I got good grades. I was taking many AP classes, so he taught me how to organize myself to prioritize academics and do good in sports at the same time.”
He believes that had he attended a big school he wouldn’t have gotten the kind of academic attention he received nor would he have had a coach like Rodríguez who showed him college was within his grasp.
“I was struggling financially, my dad was struggling at work, and I was about to drop out to help my dad pay the bills, but Balti convinced me that I should keep up with school and graduate.”