Experience and Connections Lead to Success in Shared Use for District Sports
District Sports, a DC non-profit soccer league that started in 2004 and has since grown to more than 5,000 participants, attributes its growth and success to its ability to rely on DC public schools for recreational space.
“Virtually 100 percent of our livelihood depends on our ability to use school spaces,” said Alex Bearman, Executive Director of District Sports. “We’d be able to serve less than half the amount of people we serve now if using DC public schools was not an option.”
Bearman recognizes that he has spent a lot of time working with schools in order to reserve their space, and it has been a large factor in their success. “I now understand how to do it. I’ve spent a lot of time breaking the code,” he said of the process. “For me as an organization, it’s become easier.”
District Sports attributes follow up, relationship building, knowing people at the schools, working with other nonprofits, and developing a reputation as other factors that have made the process easier.
While the process has become easier, there is room for improvement. Cutting back on high staffing expenses, particularly for smaller events, as well as switching to a clearer, more manageable, less paper-based system are major issues with the application process the group would like to see changed.
District Sports believes maintenance is the single most important aspect of the process that needs to be changed. The current process to use school space does not guarantee any money or maintenance toward the school facility from use by a community group. They suggest that resources should be allocated from rental fees for maintenance and upkeep of the facility itself.
District Sports focuses on bringing value to the schools by giving back to them, whether through grant making or in other ways, to create good relationships and add value for the students and althletic/wellness programs, as well as to make up for stresses on school facilities.
“It’s very difficult to approach a school for a request when my group would degrade the field,” Bearman said. “We recognize that there’s no incentive for the schools to allow us to use their facilities, so we try to make our program something that is valuable for them.”
One major avenue by which District Sports has been able to bring value to the schools they use is by supporting partners, such as DC Scores, a youth-focused non-profit delivering soccer programming, literacy training and service-learning opportunities to DC public elementary and middle school students. Another partner they support is the DC Education Fund, a charitable arm of the DC government that raises private funds to increase progress in DC public schools. These partners are either serving students at the schools where District Sports plays or are able to help those schools achieve some of their goals.
The league’s donations to DC Scores and DC Education Fund have helped to provide uniforms, athletic physicals, rented field time, transportation to athletic meets, as well as gym and playground equipment for students.
As a larger, more established organization, Bearman acknowledges that District Sports is in a better position to form these types of partnerships that allow them to give back to the schools where they play. But, he suggests that there are other ways of giving back that may be more feasible or within the resources of a group with a smaller budget and less experience navigating the system.
“There are creative ways to involve the school to benefit the school,” Bearman explains. Some suggestions include partnering with a larger organization, taking a percentage of the fees and donating to an organization or program that’s active within the school, volunteering for the school, involving students, teachers, other staff, community members, and neighbors in an event, or in partnerships and building community around their school.
District Sports has even partnered with a volleyball group to help them get a shared use agreement, because this group was struggling to reserve the space on their own. “We do the registration for their group under District Sports and assume the risk associated with that,” Bearman said. “It’s essentially a District Sports event.”
District Sports' sense of responsibility to the community has led them to find great success in partnering with schools through shared use agreements. The schools and District Sports' members appreciate that they make an effort to support youth in the District through athletics and wellness; a win-win for all involved.