poetry quarterly

10th anniversary


Developing Poets at a Young Age: DC Scores

by Zachary Elkin


In the early to mid-1990s, during my elementary education in the Boston Public school system, my academic and social enrichment ended with the afternoon school dismissal. After the final bell rang, I boarded the bus and headed to my after-school caregiver, where I would watch TV, feed the pet rabbit, and occasionally start my homework. Thinking back to those afternoons, I have to dig hard for memories with any semblance of personal growth.

On the other hand, my brother Matt, five years my junior, was fortunate enough to go through his early schooling during the time when a unique after-school program was spreading across the country. At James W. Hennigan School in Jamaica Plain, MA, Matt participated in soccer practices and poetry workshops with his peers every day after school. A high school student at the time, I was fairly ignorant of my younger brother’s life in general, let alone his school activities. When he came home in his team uniform, dirty from playing his weekly soccer game, I thought nothing of it. America Scores New England was providing my brother with an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right under my nose. I recently asked Matt, now 18 years old, what he remembered most about his time with Scores. “I got a Leadership award,” he said. “I still have the patch in my room.”

Jemiya Walton, a fifth grader from the Arts & Technology Academy, performs at the 2009 DC Scores
Slam at Kelly Miller Middle School.  Photo by Ian Weston.

It wasn’t until my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, under the stress of securing a job for the following year, that I came across an organization in DC that offered exactly what my brother had participated in 10 years prior. After some research, it became clear that America Scores operated on a national scale, and DC was one of its most impressive sites. Coming from a strong background in soccer and creative writing, I was immediately interested in learning more about the Scores mission and how to get involved in its DC affiliate.


DC Scores was founded in 1994 by Julie Kennedy, a former Teach for America volunteer and teacher at Marie Reed Elementary School in Adams Morgan. Kennedy was coaching soccer to a group of 15 girls after school and realized how their involvement in after-school activity not only prevented them from engaging in unsafe behaviors, but instilled in them a sense of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and school involvement.

One day, when inclement weather forced the group inside, Kennedy decided to try a different activity: poetry. She understood that the skills and life lessons learned through creative expression went hand in hand with athletics. Students could build stronger relationships by being part of a team in the classroom and on the field, develop leadership qualities, and become more self-aware participants in their communities. Combining her love for soccer, poetry and community service, Ms. Kennedy had developed a program in DC that didn’t take long to spread across the country.

In 1999, Kennedy took her innovative model to Boston and Chicago, where principals and teachers at local public schools marveled at the concept and wanted to add it to their after-school menus. Now, the Scores program serves more than 6,000 at-risk youth in 200 urban schools. For her outstanding achievements, Kennedy was awarded the Washingtonian of the Year, a daily Points of Light award from former President Bill Clinton, and was a finalist mentioned for the Presidential National Service Award. Since her time in DC, Kennedy has moved on to working with an international awards program that supports business entrepreneurs in their pursuits and rewards them for acting as global leaders. To this day, she continues her mission to inspire others to be agents of change and positivity in their communities, just as she did in her work with DC Scores youth.


With DC Scores, I have the privilege to oversee our thirty elementary school writing coaches, coordinate poetry specialists to visit the program, and do some teaching myself. While the public and public charter school teachers who lead DC Scores teams possess knowledge and enthusiasm for creative writing, students often need further inspiration from practicing artists. Over the years, DC Scores has hired performing artists and educators to lead poetry workshops, offering students a creative change of pace from the daily Scores curriculum. DC Scores has teamed up with the DC Guerilla Poetry Insurgency, The Saartjie Project, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Artbeat Collective, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and Words, Beats & Life, who have used spoken word, music, dance, and other artistic expressions to teach students the importance of poetry.

This year, our relationship with two poetry sources has flourished. The American Poetry Museum has sent numerous educators to DC Scores schools to lead their Youth Writing & Dialogue Workshops. During these sessions, students are able to engage in meaningful discussions about their lives and community and create expressive outlets using poetic devices. The talented educators from APM provide unique perspectives on poetry and often learn a lot from the youth themselves.

We’re also proud to have Anna Mwalagho, one of our writing coaches at Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights, serve as a poetry specialist at other DC Scores schools. Mwalagho is a renowned performer and poet in the DC metro area and internationally, recognized for her work in major venues such as The World Bank, UNAIDS, and the Kennedy Center. She brings her Kenyan roots to the DC poetry scene, captivating audiences with her enthusiasm and love for her heritage. During her workshops with DC Scores, there is never a dull moment—she encourages active participation and enthusiasm for poetry from the entire classroom, and students walk away with a newfound passion for and confidence in their work.


By Daniela S., H.D Cooke Elementary

Today my name is revolution
I feel like a screaming prisoner
I pretend to be a person I’m not
Yesterday my name was depressed
I heard about people starving and dying
I found no more money in my wallet
Tomorrow my name will be clock
I will forget that there is a such thing as life
I will remember that the only thing I can do is
go through time not knowing who I am

My favorite DC Scores event is the annual Poetry Slam!, where students recite memorized individual and group poems accompanied by props, music and dance. Some poems, like Daniela’s, are deep introspective accounts that reflect the troubled lives of DC youth, while others discuss the importance of reading and writing, being physically fit, and experiencing love. While many aspects of the Slam! performances are admirable, the most encouraging and touching moments are when the team acts are followed with roaring cheers from the crowd of students, parents, teachers and friends. Each year, this is the first opportunity for the entire community to come together and celebrate the accomplishments of the poet-athletes.

The other most memorable part of the DC Scores program is facilitating periodic Starbucks workshops. During these sessions, students are given the chance to perform their “works in progress” in front of peers and patrons. For many, this is their first time reciting original poetry to an audience, and it often surprises them how fun reading personal stories can be. After each student performs their work, their peers are asked to offer positive feedback and constructive criticism. Again, most have never engaged in this type of discussion, and it’s always interesting to see how students express themselves.

It’s often amazing to see the students’ progress during the hour-long workshop. One student once commented that an early performer’s poem was “not good because it didn’t rhyme.” By the end of the workshop, that same student critiqued another’s work: “I really liked the emotion you used, but sometimes I couldn’t hear. Maybe next time you could try projecting your voice more so we could hear every part.”


Marvin Bell, the first Poet Laureate of Iowa, praised the Scores program:

It is a program on the side of the angels, making a tangible difference in the education of youngsters at a crucial time in their development. The enthusiasm it engenders in its students for teamwork and language, and the confidence it builds in students who are encouraged through the program to develop their imaginations and verbal skills give them a lifetime advantage.

In DC, many youth struggle through life with few positive influential figures, few role models to gain strength or reinforcement from. DC Scores coaches and poetry specialists fill this gaping void. At least during the allotted five days a week after school, students release their emotions, fears and desires through poetry. For many students, this is the only environment where they feel comfortable openly expressing their feelings to peers and teachers. In fact, most students have never reflected on their personal experiences until sitting down with a journal during DC Scores programming, coaches watching on in admiration.

One day, I took a student aside from a writing session and asked him what the program meant to him. With a smile on his face, he explained, “Writing is good because you can get help from the coaches and you get to write all the words you think of in your head.” Simple words, but powerful.

Saba A., MacFarland Middle School

I hear the words
Over and over again
“He is dead, He is dead.”
I felt my heart shatter into pieces
I thought to myself this can’t be true
This can’t happen to me
I fell to the ground
With lightening through my mind
My body shook like thunder
My tears dropped to the ground
As if houses were flooding
I thought in my mind,
“This is my moment of sorrow.”


For Further Information
Every day after school, DC Scores combines soccer, creative writing, and service-learning for 700 students at 23 DC public and public charter elementary and middle schools. A nonprofit organization in operation since 1994, DC Scores seeks to create a positive connection to school and community, inspire a commitment to creative expression, and motivate students to live healthy lifestyles through its unique program model combining soccer, creative writing, and service-learning. DC Scores is the flagship site and an affiliate of America Scores, the nation’s largest after-school soccer and literacy program. Those interested in becoming a writing or soccer coach, leading a specialty poetry workshop, or volunteering are encouraged to see the web page and blog at http://www.dcscores.org and contact Executive Director Amy Nakamoto.



Zachary Elkin is the Elementary School Coordinator at DC Scores and boys soccer coach at Tubman Elementary School. He is a frequent contributor to the DC Scores blog and a current participant in Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.



Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.