When one thinks about local high school athletics, the first instinct isn’t always to ponder when and under what circumstances these institutions got their starts.
Anything a person would want to know about, say, Father Judge or George Washington High School would require a foray into the annals of history, an endeavor that could prove laborious.
The fact remains that all schools start somewhere, and the same can be said about their respective athletic departments. But for Tacony Academy Charter School, history is being made in real-time.
The school, located on Rising Sun Avenue near Devereaux in Lawncrest, is in its fifth year, and the 2013-14 school year marks the first that its varsity sports began competing in the Philadelphia Public League for athletics. Like anything still in its infancy stages, Tacony Charter has had to crawl before it could walk, but those first strides are most assuredly being made.
“The process itself started last year, when we participated in the Public League for baseball and softball at the JV level, and in the past we’ve played as independents not sanctioned by the Public League or PIAA District 12,” said athletic director Ryan Nase. “When I got the job in July, the first step was to follow the necessary steps in joining. Now, we have baseball and track competing as members of the Public League with plans to add more.”
Nase grew up in Rhawnhurst, about a mile-and-a-half from Tacony Charter, so the opportunity to be able to teach and run an athletic department under the same roof held a certain allure to it. He played Division-I football at Lafayette College, where he also coached for two years following graduation. Nase has also taught at Olney Charter and served as an assistant football coach under Tommy Coyle, first at Judge and most recently at Penn Charter.
The school plans to participate in the Public League at the varsity level in both girls and boys basketball next season, and there are plans to start soccer and volleyball programs before ultimately ingratiating them into the league as well.
Charter schools have been popping up with increased frequency throughout the Philadelphia area. Tacony has followed the blueprint for success in being able to offer the small class sizes of private or parochial schools with the free cost of a public education.
Tacony Charter’s beginnings can be traced back to 2002, when a new type of alternative school, First Philadelphia Charter, was launched to offer quality, purposeful education to children across Philadelphia from all backgrounds. Following First Philly’s success, the model was replicated and more schools followed suit, including Tacony in 2009. Eventually born from this in July 2011 was something called the American Paradigm Schools (APS) — previously called First Philadelphia Paradigm — an umbrella corporation “with the mission of providing a positive blueprint to communities where educational choices were absent,” according to APS’ official website. First Philly and Tacony are each classified as APS schools, and Tacony has added grades every year until this one, when the school became a full K-12 institution.
“Not only are we a K-12 school here, but this year we’ll have our first (four-year) graduating class of seniors,” said APS Director of Communication & Community Relations Jim Stanton, who has been involved since the 2002 outset. “I’ve watched our schools grow from elementary schools into high schools. For them to grow academically, as well as athletically … my God, we’re just so proud of them.”
When you’re the new kid on the block as Tacony is, each day brings new exciting landmarks. For example, on March 21, Tacony, competing in Division D, played in its first ever Public League baseball game against Maritime; though Tacony lost 4-0, senior Matt Bilotti had an eye-popping 15 strikeouts. Tacony then won its next two league games by matching 10-0 scores.
“It’s been an amazing time,” said Bilotti, who graduated from First Philly before enrolling at Tacony. “Through the years, the skill level has increased and the baseball players have progressed as athletes. I’m very happy to be a part of it. I want to make my school known on a wider stage. I’m a competitor. I live for it.”
“These four years have been really special,” added senior track star Siddiq Perry, who also started out at First Philly. “My mom and I felt this school was a good choice where I wouldn’t have to be around too many kids. I could start small and work my way up. When I came here, it challenged me to work harder and study more. You can’t just coast by. This school pushes you to be more active.”
Nase said Tacony Charter operates at about 100-125 students per grade, which allows for more hands-on and individualized learning. Despite their athletic responsibilities, Bilotti and Perry both rank near the top of their class; the former will attend Coastal Carolina University in the fall, while Perry will head to Millersville. Both credited the school for allowing them to realize their true potential as student-athletes.
And while two of the school’s most visible athletic ambassadors are set to graduate soon, their impact on possible future successes cannot be overstated. Developments for the school’s own athletic facilities are already underway, and Nase knows that when Tacony starts winning league and district titles down the line, he’ll have these two to thank for helping get it started.
“I guess it’s cliched given all that’s going on in the news with (Eagles wide receiver) DeSean Jackson, but we have a culture here we’re trying to instill in our students,” Nase said. “We want our athletes to be in AP classes just like we want them to be competitive on the field. These guys have done a great job of establishing a culture of hard work and dedication breeding success. They’re natural leaders in building that culture going forward.”
And after baseball and track seasons have concluded, Bilotti and Perry will have one last “first” to conquer: walking across the stage and getting a diploma as part of Tacony’s first freshman class to graduate.
“I enjoyed my time here,” said Perry. “We didn’t have a lot, but we made the best with what we had. To be part of the first graduating class, not a lot of people get that opportunity.”
“It will be a mix of emotions,” Bilotti added. “It’s a sad but also joyous time. I’m going to hold my head high, and everyone else will, too. We’re ready for the next step.” ••