LOS ANGELES — Squeezed between the racks of T-shirts and displays of skateboards, Cole Taylor, a volunteer from the Nike Community Ambassador program, sits down with 8-year-old Daniel Basaldua to practice spelling words and complete math problems.
Other boys jump off their boards at the front door of the Garage Board Shop in East Los Angeles and find any spare corner to do their homework.
Two assignments completed, along with 20 minutes of reading, earns them points that they can redeem for time on the ramps behind the retail part of the space. What used to literally be a car repair business, the shop has evolved into a thriving after-school tutoring and youth entrepreneurship program —Skate-4-Education — where students from 8 to 18 create their own logos for apparel and boards, and take workshops in math, English, art, videography and youth empowerment.
“Schools come by and thank us at the end of year,” says Jerry Carrera, who co-founded the shop more than 10 years ago.
Every afternoon, 30 to 40 students coming from roughly 15 schools crowd into the shop, with some getting a turn in the “hashtag room,” where they can learn how to use social media to market their personal brands. And, of course, the indoor skate park is the main draw, where the students will flip, twist and grind along a structure similar to a sidewalk curb.
‘Applicable to education’
It’s the children’s perseverance with the tricks that Zoë Corwin, a college access researcher at the University of Southern California (USC), is capturing as part of a nationwide study of how skateboarders possess qualities that contribute to success in school and college.
“There are skills that skateboarders believe they have learned through skating that are incredibly applicable to education,” says Corwin, who collected survey responses from 5,000 skateboarders and conducted case studies in seven sites across the country, including the Garage Board Shop. “I want to get this in front of college admissions counselors. The types of skills that skateboarders have are really important for college.”
And with skateboarding making its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2020 games in Tokyo, leaders of programs like Carrera’s say they have an opportunity to change the perception of skateboarders from a public nuisance to that of youth who want to have fun and are trying to master a skill.
In Los Angeles, a new green space under a bridge that is being rebuilt will also include a skate park, which Carrera called “a stepping stone to our future.”
The Tony Hawk Foundation — naturally — is supporting the research with a $264,000 grant. “Skateboarding’s been around for more than 50 years, but we’re just now beginning to understand the value to communities and individuals,” Hawk said in a video that was used to promote the survey.
Corwin and her team are still analyzing the data, which won’t be formally released until later this fall. An initial “Beyond the Board” white paper notes that the study adds to existing research on skateboarding by including a larger sample of people of color. And it takes an “assets-based perspective.”
“To be sure, there are problematic elements of skateboarding culture — and many skateboarders face challenges while seeking education and employment,” Corwin and co-authors write. “The study’s research design, however, draws from and builds onto the concept of cultural funds of knowledge and consequently highlights the cultural practices and routines that skateboarders incorporate into their lives, inside and outside of skateboarding.”
Survey responses, Corwin says, are pointing to a few attributes she believes can transfer to the classroom.
First, skateboarders work on a trick until they get it, “practicing like 1,000 times,” she says. They’re also good at problem-solving, as well as being creative and self-starting, often creating their own obstacles for tricks. They’re tech savvy, she says, with shooting and editing video now a large part of skateboarding culture.
There is also an “ease with which they communicate across cultural groups. Race doesn’t matter,” Corwin says. “If I’m a college admissions person, those are the kinds of kids that I want.”
The respondents, she adds, generally have positive attitudes toward school and say that the primary reason they skateboard is to have fun. The findings are portraying a different image of youth from that of children and teens who are “alienated from each other and always on their phones,” she says. “The fact that they are getting out and connected is very cool.”
‘A place to explore their passion’
The challenge for students, especially in communities where skateboarding is discouraged, is having a place to practice their sport. In 2017, for example, the Brown County Schools in Nashville, Indiana, banned students from riding their skateboards on school property, citing too many “close calls.”
But determined students began raising money for their own park, which is under construction.
The lack of places to skate is a gap that more schools are beginning to fill.
Woodcraft Rangers, a Los Angeles-area nonprofit that runs after-school and summer programs, began offering "SK8" clubs in 2008 and now serves about 300 students a year. The organization also organizes mobile, pop-up skate parks to introduce more children to the sport.
While the program includes a focus on STEM and learning the science involved in designing a board, the primary goal of the program is the skating.
“We teach the kids how to fall,” says Rebecca Bernard, the organization’s chief program officer. “You’re teaching them basic skills before they are shredding on concrete.”
Demand for SK8 has increased at Gage Middle School in the Huntington Park community in Los Angeles County, for example, because a nearby skate park was recently closed. With 15 students currently in the program, Chrisilia Monroy, a Woodcraft Rangers program manager for middle schools, says after the winter break, they might add a second coach so another 15 students can join.
"Right now, this is the only safe place where we can have kids skate," says SK8 coach Edgar Navarro, who began skateboarding when he attended Gage.
With beginners through more advanced skaters, Navarro gives them individual attention and sets up ramps and obstacles for practicing tricks. He focuses on getting them over their fear of falling and teaches maneuvers that can prevent injuries.
"My mom wanted me to go to after school, and I thought there would be nothing cool," says 6th-grader Connie Trujillo. But she was intrigued by the idea of skateboarding and checked with some friends to make sure other girls were signing up. About half the students in Gage's club are girls.
Monroy adds that principals have the say on whether Woodcraft Rangers' sites add the skateboarding club. Some have visited Gage to view the structure and safety features of the program.
More schools are also turning skateboarding from an after-school activity or hobby into a team sport.
At this point, however, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) does not recognize it as an official sport, and data on participation or number of teams is not available from the National Federation of Sports High School Associations. CIF officials say they are unaware of any efforts to propose a league.
At San Pasqual High School near San Diego, which partnered with local skateboard shop Arts-Rec to launch its team last year, skateboarding is a hybrid sport, explains Principal Martin Casas. It operates as a club, but also receives school funding through a federal After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens grant — similar to 21st Century Community Learning Centers, but for high school.
“Instead of taking the traditional approach of chastising our skaters with punitive measures to discourage them from skating, we asked ourselves ‘What would happen if we embraced this as a school?’” Casas says.
He describes the school’s skaters as “some of our most gifted athletes,” but says they are also the risk-takers, the students who tend to challenge the conventional.
"We asked ourselves ‘What would happen if we embraced (skateboarding) as a school?’”
Principal, San Pasqual High School
“There is an inherent rebellious, counterculture and element of danger that embodies the soul of every skater — qualities that make our student-athletes independent, resilient and creative,” Casas says. “We are happy to give them a place to explore their passion and represent our school."