Turning athletes into student-athletes

Turning athletes into student-athletes

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The classrooms at Colegio Instituto Escuela are empty on this afternoon. The hallways, usually full of bustling youth, are so silent that every door slam and ringing phone can be heard throughout the building.

It's December. Downtime in the principal's office, and for Valoree Lebron, the woman responsible for transforming some of the country's most athletic students into its most productive student-athletes, it's time to start thinking about next year. As the director of this private institution, which helps the Dominican Summer League players in the Boston, Cleveland, New York Mets and Seattle organizations get their high school diplomas, Lebron's work is never done.

She would not have it any other way.

"I had no idea working with baseball would be the best experience of my life," Lebron said. "It's a very unique situation as a teacher because first of all, all the students have the same goal, and that's to get to the Major Leagues. Secondly, all the players are amazingly grateful for anything you teach them here, and each literally comes up and thanks you after classes. You just don't get that."

Any of the 30 Major League teams can send its players to Colegio Instituto Escuela for an annual fee of approximately $35,000, but so far only four teams participate in the two-year-old program.

"Some teams are receptive, and others are like, 'We don't need that,' because there are still a lot of teams that feel that players should have afternoons to rest instead of getting on a bus and coming to school," Lebron said. "To me, it's great training, riding buses. When you get to the Minors, you have to ride buses for 10 hours, and here you get a look how it is. It's an eye-opener for teams. You can see who the complainers are, who has a positive attitude. Who can adapt."

There are approximately 35 students from each team at Colegio Instituto Escuela per year, and unlike most educational institutions in the Dominican Republic, the school year for these students starts in October and revolves around each club's Instructional League and Summer League programs.

There are other differences. Each team has a separate schedule, many times with a different number of hours and different number of days allotted for classwork. The teams do not share classrooms or mix players but there is one big similarity -- the curriculum.

Colegio Instituto Escuela uses Prepara, a program designed by the International Cooperation Agency of Spain for young-adult learners in the Dominican Republic. Designed for eighth- through 12th-grade students who have other responsibilities, Prepara uses a series of textbooks and workbooks to prepare students for national exams at each grade level. Students who meet the requirements and pass the national exam at the end of the 12th grade are eligible for a high school diploma.


"The way I look at it is, teams are taking care of the boys' physical education, and here we take care of the intellectual, emotional [education]," Lebron said. "You put it all together, and it's going to help get more Latinos get to the Major Leagues quicker."

A variety of courses -- including literature, history, language arts, geography, algebra, chemistry and physics -- are taught at Colegio Instituto Escuela, with Prepara using a strategy called the Metacognition Method. This method, described as "thinking about thinking," focuses on a student planning, controlling and evaluating the learning process.

Some believe that the method can have positive effects on the field.

"Baseball is about critical thinking, and we need all the help we can get," said Patrick Guerrero, the coordinator of Dominican operations for Seattle. "It's not just about ability. Not only about playing hard. You have to know how to deal with baseball and make important decisions all the time. What you do outside the field can hurt you, too. If they go to school and learn, I believe it's easier [for them] to become a better all-around person."

The program also includes 45 minutes of English instruction daily, and a U.S. cultural program. Both types of classes are offered in some form at every Major League Baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.

"I know 100 percent won't make it to the Major Leagues, but I know that 100 percent of the guys who are in these academies are school dropouts," Lebron said. "Most do not pick up a pencil or book for years, and here they get back into the idea of being a student. What if you don't make it? What else would you like to do? The reality is that most of these guys will not make it to the Major Leagues, and you have to plan for that."

That's where the education comes in. Last year, four Mets and three Indians prospects received their high school diploma. In 2005, the first official year of the program, four players received an eighth-grade certification and seven others completed the requirements to obtain a high school diploma.

"I knew from my time with Major League Baseball that education is a very important component, and you have to address the player as a whole," said Rafael Perez, the Mets' director of international development. "I feel a lot of players did not have a structure, and that's where Instituto Escuela came in. I think going to school gives them structure."

Located near the center of the city, the Colegio Instituto Escuela was established in 1948 as a private school for middle-class students. It operated successfully for several years but closed in 1972. Lebron re-opened the school in 1974, four years after moving to the country with her family from Santa Fe, N.M., and has spent the last 32 years educating students from the kindergarten to the university level.

In 2004 she was approached by Ross Atkins and Lino Diaz from the Cleveland Indians about the possibility of providing an educational program for the club's Dominican prospects. The Cleveland organization prides itself on player development, so finding a program that would allow its prospects to develop critical thinking skills and learn English while participating in the academy was the next logical step.

"It was exactly what we were looking for, a place to learn and prepare better," Diaz said. "The difference was immediate, and you could see the change right away. The guys were more confident and more prepared to do things. The self-esteem was high. We won't be able to see results of them moving through the system at this point, but eventually we believe they will."

The Red Sox and Mets followed the Indians' lead. The Mariners are scheduled to begin classes in April 2008 with a 62-person group that includes players and coaches. Because of the high number of participants, the Mariners are paying close to $50,000 for class instruction for the school year, Guerrero said.

"Whatever we spend, it's worth it, because it helps our organization, plus you give back to the community for players," Guerrero said. "I think the academies in this country are going to keep getting better, and we are going to keep producing players for the Major Leagues. Who produces better players and who gets them in your system quicker is important. Preparation and education plays a role in that."

As for Lebron, she is especially content during December, because she finally has a chance to reflect on the school year. Previous concerns about paying for school supplies out of her own pocket have long subsided by the last month of the year, and optimism about the future of the school, particularly the new computer lab in the works, is at an all-time high.

If an academy director is the father figure to these players, then a school director such as Lebron is the surrogate mother. She flashes no bigger smile than when she talks about players borrowing suits for graduation day or having to comb their hair for photos. A mother of three adult children, her biggest complaint is the absence of a team representative at the graduation ceremony when one of her boys gets a diploma.

"I just hope there are more teams that start to recognize that lying around at a complex in the afternoon after workouts does not help them become Major Leaguers," she said. "The body tires, but the mind is always working. My question is, 'How are the minds being stimulated?' "

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.