Robert K. Cato

Letters, texts and phone calls. Promises of championships. Offers of big-money scholarships. Another day in the college sports recruiting wars? No, it’s what local kids as young as 10 are being deluged with—from some of Philadelphia’s most elite private high schools

WHEN GIL BROOKS took over as head football coach at St. Joseph’s Prep in 1992, the school’s brand lacked the cachet it has today. Enrollment was down to about 140 per class — from more than 200 in the ’70s, according to Brooks — and the once-proud football team at the all-boys school had become a patsy in the Catholic League. (The Hawks were 41-85-1 from 1980 to 1991.) Armed with an administrative mandate to sell the school, which is located on Girard Avenue, to anybody he encountered, Brooks began to attract players from all over the region, including New Jersey. The results were astounding. The Prep captured the Catholic League title in 1997, and from 1999 to 2008 won 55 straight league games.

“As we went along, it became an easier process,” says Brooks, who left the school after the 2009 season and spent 2010 as an assistant at Camden Catholic. “People wanted to be at the Prep.”

The football team’s success coincided with a boost in enrollment. Today, there are about 250 boys in each grade, and 600 prospects take the school’s entrance exam each year. Meanwhile, alumni donations have also shot up. “Anything positive for the school helps alumni feel connected and engaged,” says the school’s director of marketing and communications, Bill Avington.

While the Prep’s growth has aligned with its football success, at Bryn Athyn’s Academy of the New Church, which was founded in 1876 and sits on 130-plus acres off Huntingdon Pike, it’s the enriched basketball program that has recently generated attention for the school. Over the past five years or so, the Lions, who play in the Friends Schools League, have progressed from hardwood punching bags to a team that, this past season, knocked off the nation’s top-ranked squad (Findlay Prep) and boasted three players who have committed to play for Big East powers. “I’m sure [the team] helps the school in terms of marketing,” says Kevin Givens, ANC’s head basketball coach and an alumnus. “Nobody had really heard of ANC before.”

The school is still fighting for notice, and that’s why Givens has been given the freedom to recruit players from the city, Delaware and even Canada to enrich the team — and the school’s reputation. “I had people who lived within 10 miles of the school say that they didn’t know we existed,” says Shawn Synnestvedt, ANC’s athletic director and another alum. “Now that we have had some [basketball] success, it increases the public profile and gives us an opportunity to get more families looking at the school.”

Germantown Academy head of school Jim Connor knows firsthand how athletic success can impact a school. When he coached baseball at GA in the late ’80s, the Patriots had a player named Mark Steffens, who was later signed by the Phillies. “When the story of Mark hit the papers, people were calling me and asking if they could come to GA,” says Connor, who by then was head of school. “Athletics are a conduit.”

Over the past several years, Germantown Academy has established endowed scholarship programs that are “need-based,” according to Connor. Each fall, as many as 40 student-athletes sit for examinations designed to narrow the field for the awards to five finalists. Even though all who take the test don’t qualify for the scholarship, many still end up attending the school. “One year, 16 of the applicants were in our next ninth-grade class,” Connor says. As a result of the scholarship program, Connor reports that “over the past 10 to 15 years, our athletic program has never been stronger across the board, and our academic program has never been stronger across the board.”

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