WASHINGTON -- On this sunny fall day on the grounds of the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, the sounds of construction are filling the crisp air at this site about four miles from Nationals Park, across the Anacostia River.
But it won't be long before a different sort of cacophony is ringing out across the roughly nine-acre facility. Soon, baseballs will be pinging off bats and slapping against leather, and coaches will be shouting instructions across the three fields that surround a state-of-the-art building housing classrooms, a training facility and more.
The Nationals on Thursday provided a tour of the sprawling Southeast D.C. academy, which is slated to open in January to benefit the underserved youth population of the city's 7th and 8th Wards. In the meantime, the academy's after-school program already has launched in a temporary home at a nearby elementary school, providing a head start for its primary goal of academic enrichment.
"It wasn't just about baseball and softball, which is fantastic, and developing a culture of baseball and softball in Washington," said Nationals principal owner Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, who helped spearhead the academy as the chair of the Nationals Dream Foundation. "But it was also about developing an academic program that would best serve the kids of D.C. and this neighborhood, and I think we've done that."
Tanenbaum helped guide Thursday's tour, along with Tal Alter, the academy's executive director, as well as a District native and former college baseball player. They showed off the many features of the facility, which contains two fields for softball or youth baseball, one regulation-sized baseball field, a 4,800-square-foot fitness area with two retractable batting cages and padded turf, an atrium with space for community meetings, and eight classrooms, including a teaching kitchen where students can learn about cooking and proper nutrition.
"It is a baseball-softball complex, and it'll be utilized as such, but most importantly, the philosophy behind what we're doing is that this is a holistic youth-development program," Alter said. "It's an academic-enrichment program. It's a health and wellness program. We're going to have a very robust curriculum in both areas, in terms of academics, in terms of nutrition."
According to Alter, less than 30 percent of third- and fourth-graders in Ward 7 are proficient in math and reading. To combat this, the academy is partnering with an organization called Higher Achievement to help students catch up with their peers. The core program will run three days a week during the school year and for six weeks during summer, starting with this year's group of third- and fourth-graders. More third-graders will be added each year until the program reaches its capacity of 270 students, or 45 at each grade, third through eighth.
Alter's goal is to have one coach or teacher and two student volunteers for every 15 kids. The program, he said, also will "rely very heavily" on volunteer mentors, who will meet once a week with three or four kids.
Beyond the core program, Alter wants the academy to serve as a year-round baseball and softball facility, hosting camps, clinics, recreational leagues and other events. It helps to have the Nats nearby, with general manager Mike Rizzo and shortstop Ian Desmond serving on the academy's board, along with Tanenbaum and her brother and fellow principal owner Mark Lerner. Students will be able to interact with players and attend games at Nationals Park.
"The vision is for this to be a hub for baseball and softball in D.C. and this community, and then ultimately, the region," Alter said.
But that vision comes with plenty of hurdles. Many of the kids participating have little to no experience or familiarity with the sport, a common issue for youth in urban areas and something Major League Baseball has been working to address with its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.
"We're going to be tasked with a somewhat challenging job of developing a baseball and softball culture, essentially from scratch, introducing a new sport to young people," Alter said.
"It's going to be our job to develop that culture and really bring kids into it so they feel this is something they own, and then that can become infectious."
The Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and Higher Achievement are still looking for mentors to teach small groups of third- and fourth-grade students in science, math or literature, using provided baseball-themed lessons. Mentors will teach one night per week, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. ET on Mondays or Tuesdays, from late September until early May at Fort Dupont Park in Washington.
For more information or to complete an application, visit higherachievement.org or contact Matt Thornton at firstname.lastname@example.org.