JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF
Wrestling coach Jose Valenzuela, center, is a teacher who founded a nonprofit wrestling program for city kids.
A teacher takes action
Tamer was an early supporter of Jose Valenzuela, the founder of Boston Youth Wrestling. A seventh-grade history teacher at Boston Latin Academy, Valenzuela credits wrestling with transforming him from a struggling middle schooler, much like Ortiz, Houston, and Smith, into a graduate of Boston Latin School and Williams College.
He created the nonprofit with several of his former wrestling teammates at Williams.
“I’ve seen lots of kids go through the Boston public schools without ever having a positive experience,’’ Valenzuela said. “They never have a taste of success. They feel like school is not for them. Then wrestling comes along and they feel like they’re good at something. You can see what it does for them.’’
Valenzuela was 26 when he launched the foundation on a shoestring budget in 2012. Lacking fund-raising experience, he tapped his wrestling and teaching expertise to show charitable organizations he could change young lives. Soon, he began receiving support from the Lenny Zakim Fund, the Boston Foundation, the New England Patriots Foundation, and Josh Kraft, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, enabling his nonprofit to build an annual budget of more than $100,000. Valenzuela does not receive compensation.
Many suburban schools have chipped in, donating wrestling shoes and gear. So have private schools such as Roxbury Latin and Boston College High School. And the Boston Police contributed a wrestling mat, now used by a club team at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester.
But growth has not come easily. Boston school officials have rejected requests by several high schools, including Brighton and West Roxbury Academy, to launch varsity wrestling programs.
The city’s athletic director, Avery Esdaile, said he is not opposed to expanding access to wrestling. The chief impediment is money, he said. He also cautioned against launching varsity teams before they can sustain adequate participation levels.
“We’re all for having more opportunities for the kids,’’ Esdaile said. “We just need to figure out how that would look and how we would make it work.’’
For his part, Valenzuela views wrestling as more than an athletic opportunity. His top academic priorities include addressing a racial disparity in admissions at the city’s three exam schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.
School department data show that while 56 percent of the white males and 55 percent of the Asian males of exam school age (grades 7 to 12) in the Boston Public School system attend one of the elite schools, only 10 percent of the African-American boys and 10 percent of the Hispanic boys do so.
“We can do much better,’’ Valenzuela said.
His nonprofit, in addition to providing academic mentors for its wrestlers, has secured a grant from the Boston Foundation to launch a pilot educational enrichment program at the Frederick school, whose student population is about 88 percent black or Latino.
Tommy Simmons, the school’s wrestling coach, said he’s encouraged by early signs of improvement among students who have joined the wrestling team.
“Earlier in the year, about half of our kids had at least one failing grade,’’ said Simmons, who teaches eighth-grade humanities. “Now every single kid is passing.’’
Valenzuela hopes to expand the enrichment program to the other middle schools his nonprofit supports: the McCormack, Mildred Avenue, and the Eliot K-8 and Orchard Gardens K-8 schools.
The 250 students who competed this year came from a number of programs around the city, including high school club teams at West Roxbury Academy, TechBoston, and Madison Park. Most of the coaches are compensated with $1,250 stipends that are earmarked for BPS teachers who provide extra support for students.
But challenges remain. West Roxbury coach Brad Lewis said he raised an additional $1,000 from the community to equip his team. A chemistry teacher, Lewis said the contributions were necessary for the school to provide an athletic alternative for students who are coping with an array of hardships.
“A lot of our kids come from very challenging backgrounds,’’ he said. “They have limited parental support. Or they are new to the country and staying with relatives. Some have very unstable home lives. It’s huge for them when they find something they care about and gives them some consistency.’’
It has worked for Ortiz, one of six girls on the Frederick team. Her grades have improved. She is stronger physically and emotionally. She has made new friends and has begun embracing the value of sports and education.
“I feel like I can focus a lot better now,’’ she said. “If I lose a match, it’s OK because it’s still good to learn from my mistakes.’’
She hopes to wrestle in high school, if there is a team for her.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.