Roberson Middle School in Houston, Texas is not your typical public school.
As a “school of choice” in the Spring Independent School District, students must submit an application, pass an audition/interview, and have teacher recommendations just to be considered. Those who meet the requirements then enter into a lottery for selection.
Serving students in grades 6-8 with a rigorous academic curriculum, the non-traditional school averages about 850 fifth-grade applicants annually, each hoping to secure one of the 300 available slots. The majority of the school’s student population is Hispanic and Black.
Against this background, Roberson has not traditionally offered many options in athletics. In fact, for many years, its only competitive teams were wrestling and soccer.
It was around 2016 when Ernest Webb, a physical education and health teacher at the school, recognized the need for another sports activity for students.
“These are smart kids, but they are also regular kids who need an outlet,” Webb said. “And I’m always trying to help them realize there’s more than just football, soccer and basketball as options.”
Despite not having a personal background in the sport, Webb figured that lacrosse, with Native American roots, would be the right offering. In addition to learning the skills of the game, players would also have the opportunity to develop a fuller understanding of Native culture.
An initial grant provided by the JJ Watt Foundation helped to get both a boys’ and girls’ team established. The boys began play in 2017, the girls followed in 2018, and Roberson continues to be the only middle school in its district to offer lacrosse.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Needing further support, Webb applied for and received a USA Lacrosse grant in 2017. The equipment and resources provided allowed Roberson’s teams to begin competitive play against boys’ opponents in the Greater Houston Youth Lacrosse Association and against girls’ teams in the Greater Houston Girls’ Lacrosse Association.
“Our kids want to compete and play against other teams,” Webb said. “They are really passionate about lacrosse.”
But with over 40 players on both the boys’ and girls’ teams, there was still a gap in meeting the needs of Roberson’s teams. That brought Webb back to USA Lacrosse to become a member of the organization’s Urban Lacrosse Alliance (ULA), which provides annual education, equipment, and funding to support self-sustaining programs in urban communities.
“USA Lacrosse has been critical to our program,” Webb said. “The organization has done a great job of helping to equip us through the years.”
The equipment package option offered through the Urban Lacrosse Alliance has provided sticks, cleats, helmets, uniforms, and goggles. Funding for the ULA is provided through the generosity of USA Lacrosse Foundation supporters and corporate partners.
“This grant made it easier for all the kids to have everything they needed,” Webb said. “It made a big difference for us.”
Due to the interruption from the Covid-19 pandemic, both of Roberson’s teams were inactive in 2020 and 2021. To help rebuild the participation numbers and reinvigorate the players, Roberson reached back out to USA Lacrosse for a third time in 2022, and has hosted Sankofa Clinics the past two years.
USA Lacrosse works with local organizations to plan and implement the clinic, while Sankofa affiliated players serve as the clinicians providing the hands-on instruction. Organizations that offer lacrosse participation opportunities in which a majority of the participants are ethnic minorities, which is the case at Roberson, are eligible to apply for local clinics.
“The clinics have been so well received,” Webb said. “The kids have a great time.”
Roberson’s boys’ team returned to competitive play last year and recently launched its 2023 campaign. Unfortunately, due to a transition in leadership, the girls’ program has remained inactive, although a plan is in place to relaunch the team in 2024.
“We have identified new coaches for the girls’ team and will be rejoining the Houston Girls’ Lacrosse Association,” Webb said. “We have a good nucleus, and anticipate having about 30 girls playing on the team next spring. A lot of them have caught the bug.”
Beyond just playing at Roberson, Webb is also encouraged that so many of the boys and girls are motivated to remain active in the sport as they transition to high school. Ironically, he reminds them that the same level of commitment that they make in their academic pursuits is also needed in lacrosse.
“We tell them that playing against the wall, before and after practice, is how they are going to learn and get better,” Webb said. “They love the sticks that they get through USA Lacrosse’s support, but we tell them those sticks are not just for looking good. You’ve got to put them to use too.”
The 2023 application cycle to join USA Lacrosse’s Urban Lacrosse Alliance will be open from June 1 through July 31, 2023. All organizations must submit a USA Lacrosse grant application to be considered. If approved, Urban Lacrosse Alliance members receive resources and benefits from USA Lacrosse to support local game development efforts. Learn more at www.usalacrosse.com/grants.
The USA Lacrosse Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that serves as the philanthropic arm of USA Lacrosse. The Foundation helps drive the three main pillars of the USA Lacrosse mission: 1) Fuel the growth; 2) Enrich the experience; 3) Field the best national teams. Supporting the foundation provides thousands of children across the country the opportunity to experience the gift of lacrosse. To learn more about the USA Lacrosse Foundation, please visit www.usalacrosse.com/foundation.