The Bancroft team is preparing for a new school year in which the squad will attempt to defend their title as reigning boys’ champions and continue to excel in the girls’ division and at poetry slams. Photo: Brandon Ellis
When the poet-athletes of Bancroft Elementary School stepped up to the microphone at last year’s DC SCORES Westside Poetry Slam, they were determined to make an impression.
“En Bancroft es hermoso [Bancroft is beautiful],” they yelled, opening a performance that seamlessly blended Spanish and English in a celebration of Bancroft’s multilingual community.
Bancroft is one of 11 schools across the DC Public Schools system to offer a Dual Language Education program in which students study grade-level content in two languages. When wandering the school’s hallways, or attending one of its daily afterschool DC SCORES sessions, the language you are most likely to hear at Bancroft is Spanish.
Though demand for dual language school programs has surged in the District in recent years, Bancroft has been serving Spanish speakers in its predominantly Latino Columbia Heights neighborhood for decades. As a result, the school has gained a reputation for being a welcoming space for Latino students, many of whom find their way onto Bancroft’s DC SCORES team.
“We have a lot of first-generation students who literally came to the US a year ago. The SCORES team is like their second family here in the United States,” says John Guzmán, who serves as Director of Strategy and Logistics at Bancroft, as well as one of the school’s DC SCORES coaches.
“DC SCORES is all about inclusivity. Making sure that everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity, is accepted,” he adds. “Celebrating Latino culture and Spanish speakers is part of that.”
“Spanish Is Just Better For Me”
Just as they do as school employees during the day, Bancroft’s DC SCORES coaches utilize Spanish as the primary language of instruction in their daily soccer, poetry, and service-learning after-school sessions.
This approach not only reinforces the school’s Dual Language curriculum (“It’s key for us to elevate Spanish throughout the school building,” says Guzmán) but helps coaches better meet the needs of poet-athletes in the DC SCORES program.
Coach Guzmán is one of the longest-serving coaches at DC SCORES, which he first joined as a poet-athlete in his youth.
“When I’m speaking Spanish with the students, I feel like I can connect with more students,” says Coach Ronald Hernandez, who works full-time as a clerk at the school and whose parents immigrated to DC from Mexico and El Salvador.
“Many of our students speak Spanish all the time at home, so using Spanish at DC SCORES makes them feel more connected, more at home,” adds Guzmán.
One of the places where poet-athletes’ Spanish language skills shine most is during their DC SCORES poetry writing sessions. As Guzmán explains, “When we tell them, ‘Hey, you can write in Spanish,’ they feel like they can express themselves freely. They don’t need to find out the definition or meaning of a particular word in English and they’re more able to express their feelings without any barriers.”
Bancroft poet-athletes perform at the 2022 DC SCORES Westside Poetry Slam draped in flags representing the many national identities held by members of the team. Photo: Aya Takeuchi.
“It makes me feel good to write in Spanish because Spanish is my first language,” agrees fourth-grader and DC SCORES poet-athlete Ashlyn Garcia Ramirez, “and my favorite thing is that we can share stuff and play with lots of people from all over the world.”
This ability to connect with other poet-athletes is also a draw for fourth-grader Alexander Castillo. He says, “Speaking in Spanish is just better for me. I can connect with my teammates because they speak Spanish, too.”
Building A DC SCORES Family
It is not uncommon for members of the DC SCORES team to refer to themselves as “a family,” but for some members of the squad, it’s more than just a metaphor. “That’s my niece,” says Ronald, pointing to a student in the playground, “and [DC SCORES Writing] Coach Paloma [Lopez Garcia] is my cousin.”
These family bonds demonstrate the close-knit community at Bancroft: both Guzmán and Ronald attended the school themselves. In fact, Guzmán was a poet-athlete in one of the earliest iterations of the DC SCORES program. “The fact that it’s now nationwide is incredible,” he says. He adds, “DC SCORES has become a safe haven for so many students in the city to be part of something bigger.”
Bancroft poet-athletes celebrate with one another after the boys’ team won the DC SCORES Capital Cup. Photo: Brandon Ellis
While Guzmán’s motivation as a coach is to provide students with the same opportunities he had as a youngster, Ronald is driven by a different calling. “I never got the opportunity to play sports,” explains Ronald, who has a medical condition affecting his bones that prevents him from playing contact sports.
“I’ve always wanted to help others achieve that dream that I couldn’t get,” he continues.
Ronald joined the DC SCORES coaching team in 2022 and has just ended a dream season that saw Bancroft’s boys’ team lift the DC SCORES Capital Cup trophy. “I’ve told a couple of co-workers from DC SCORES that I want to get a tattoo commemorating the championship because it means so much to me!” he jokes.
Coach Ronald (center) won the Coaching Commitment Award at this year’s SCORE Awards. The award was presented to him by D.C. United’s Chris Durkin (left) and the Washington Spirit’s Anna Heilferty (right). Photo: Cody Cervenka.
And, while winning trophies is a bonus for the team, chasing silverware is not why Guzmán and Ronald support their school community year after year.
“My favorite moment last year was actually during a game we lost,” says Guzmán. “The kids were rallying around each other and reflecting on the loss. It was a humbling moment for all of them, but pretty beautiful,” he recalls.
This experience — of serving as a mentor to a team of poet-athletes who support one another win, lose, or draw — is also a big inspiration for Ronald. “I already know I’m making an impact,” he says, describing a conversation he had with a poet-athlete who was graduating at the end of the school year. Her parting words will stay with him forever: “She told me, ‘I know we’re not gonna work together anymore, but no matter what, you’ll always be my coach.’”