America SCORES: Building a Safe Space After School Through Soccer, Poetry, and Service Learning

What if kids could have a safe space after school to play soccer, write poetry, and improve the community with a team and a mentor?

Photo of Holly O'Donnell
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

The America SCORES model was developed in 1994 in Washington, D.C., by Julie Kennedy, a public school teacher concerned that her students, lacking constructive after-school options, were at risk of gang activity and other dangers after class. Turning to her experience as an athlete, she began teaching her class soccer after school. In bad weather, she turned to her other passion – poetry – and began teaching her students how to write and perform their poetry. Soon, she noticed her students getting more engaged in class, performing better academically, and spending more time being physically active. By adding a service-learning element based on a student-led neighborhood service project, Julie saw that her students developed confidence and learned that they could affect change in their community. Schools across D.C. took notice and the program expanded citywide. In 1999, America SCORES grew to a national organization. Today, America SCORES impacts more than 10,000 youth each year, in over 175 public schools in fourteen cities: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Portland (OR), San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C. More than 50,000 urban youth have benefited from the unique programming of America SCORES.


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • New York

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

New York City

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • District of Columbia

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Boston, New York City, Portland, St. Louis, Seattle, Vancouver (Canada)

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

America SCORES tries to address the lack of after-school options for children in low-income communities around the country. While 10.2 million children participate in after school programs, another 19.4 million would participate if a program were available, according to leading advocacy group Afterschool Alliance. Due to a lack of funding and interest, millions of low-income children lack a safe space after school, leaving them vulnerable to outside influences. More specifically, America SCORES addresses tangible problems like childhood obesity that have been rampant in the United States. Through lack of access to fields and lack of opportunity to organized sport, millions of children don't get enough physical activity. America SCORES solves this problem with 10 hours of soccer per week on an organized team, leading to increases in a child's cardiovascular exercise.

For over 20 years, the verdict has been the same: America SCORES works. Numerous national and local studies show that our program improves children’s academics and commitment to school, increases their physical fitness and teamwork skills, and empowers them to be leaders in their communities. By having kids be part of a team with a coach who serves as a mentor, we create a safe space for them to be physically active and express themselves, keeping them away from potential vulnerabilities outside of school. SCORES lays the foundation for success in school with a well-rounded and, most of all, fun after school experience that students become a part of for many years, ensuring they remain engaged in school throughout their childhood. 

Typically America SCORES works with schools and school districts to make the program available to as many students as possible. Enrollment is up to the schools to decide, leading to great demand for the program. Each program creates a sustainable plan for growth to new schools to ensure that with each additional student impacted, the program does not drop in quality. Evaluations are done each year, eliciting feedback from students, teachers, parents, principals, volunteers, and staff to ensure the quality of programming improves year after year. Many coaches of the program are recruited within the schools so that students often have an existing relationship with their teachers. 

The key to the America SCORES model is that it’s holistic, team-based, and the core activities provide children with well-rounded experiences:

1 – Soccer is a universal sport accessible to all children regardless of background and physical characteristics. It is an inclusive sport.
2– Poetry transcends culture and language and helps children develop creative thinking, literacy, and speaking skills.
3 – Service Learning helps children develop empathy, social responsibility, and a sense of personal worth.

The result is children who experience success on the field, in the classroom, and in the community.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

A reflection from Nahoul, a recent college graduate and a former student in America SCORES Los Angeles: "My friends would bug me nonstop about joining SCORES. I didn't want to because I thought it was dumb and probably wouldn't like it. During this time, I was hanging around with the wrong crowd and almost joined a gang. They kept asking me to go play with them at SCORES so I finally did. Being in SCORES was the most amazing thing to ever happen to me. It kept me away from the bad crowd and helped me focus on school and soccer. Though I only spent one year in SCORES, it laid the foundation for who I am today. SCORES has provided opportunities for me to excel in school, on the field, and in the real world."

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Last year, America SCORES reached 10,877 students in 175 schools in 14 urban areas in the United States and Canada. Of these students, 85% improved their cardiovascular capacity and 75% improved their grammar and writing mechanics. As we measure more of our social and emotional impact, we have found that 97% of students exhibit more self-confidence and 96% of parents say their child is more engaged in school after being in SCORES. Going forward, we hope to meet demand for our program in existing cities. There are currently 50 schools on waitlists for SCORES, meaning 1,500 students are waiting for the SCORES opportunity. With partnership programs, we could reach 15,000 students within two years, ensuring more and more kids have a safe space after-school.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • over $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Each of our affiliate programs focus on local funding sources to develop their impact in a sustainable manner. This is a combination of foundations, public funding, and corporate support. No program expands to a new school without ensuring two years of funding are in place for support. One innovative fundraiser replicated across sites is the SCORES Cup, where companies compete in a soccer tournament that raises funds for program growth.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are many after-school programs that give a safe space to students. However, America SCORES is the only urban youth development program with curriculum specifically aligned with the twelve Standards for English Language Arts (National Council of Teachers of English), the six National Standards for Physical Education (National Association for Sport and Physical Education), and the eight K-12 Service-Learning Standards (National Youth Leadership Council). By teaching poetry, soccer, and service learning, we are creating the foundation for a well-rounded childhood.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

We have been very interested in recent studies measuring the amount of fun that kids are having while playing sports. While data showing physical improvement and academic engagement are important, fun is first and foremost on our minds for students in our program. It is our hope to be a leader in quantitatively measuring fun and the factors that lead to it. We hope to do this both through a research-driven approach and through continuing alumni feedback. This in turn can ensure that programming is structured around activities that will lead to the most fun for participants.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

a) Over 10,000 at-risk urban youth, 85% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. b) Activities include a combination of soccer practice and games, poetry writing and performing, and service learning in the community. c) The program operates 5 days a week in 175 schools in 14 cities, alternating 3 days of soccer and 2 days of poetry in the fall and 3 days of soccer and 2 days of service learning in the spring. d) Most coaches are teachers already in the schools who are trained to implement the SCORES program. This gives children a positive and consistent role model they know.

Community Leadership

Each SCORES affiliate has their own board of directors that serve as a governing body of the organization. Board members advise on how the program suits local needs and are comprised of stakeholders in the community who volunteer their time for the growth of the program. Many affiliates also have junior boards for young people to get involved, ensuring people of all ages and economic circumstance have a voice in the program's future.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

As the program began in different cities over 17 years, it shaped itself to each community and created ideas and initiatives that were shared and replicated elsewhere. While specifics of the program may differ city-to-city, the ability of the program to provide a safe space and aid a child's development is consistent across the board. This impact doesn't change with program growth and requires stakeholders that look beyond the details.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

America SCORES creates teams through soccer, brings these teams into the classroom to discover their voice through poetry, and inspires students to use these voices to make change in their communities. Coaches provide students with a positive role model, the team provides them with a positive peer group, and the program provides them a safe place to find and express themselves openly. Students grow in confidence both in school and in life.

Leadership Story

After its founding in 1994, the program has evolved in different ways. Originally focused on elementary school, the program has expanded to middle school so that students have the ability to stay with their team for many years. Similarly, many SCORES sites now offer winter and summer programs, ensuring students can reap the benefits year-round. As students have entered high school and college, programs have emerged to engage alumni and help them graduate high school and prepare for college. In this way, SCORES establishes the platform for students to succeed now and for the future.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Honored at the First Lady's Beating the Odds Summit for college-bound alumni (2015-2016) Recognized in 2 Harvard Family Research Project reports (2011) Cited in ‘what works’ in the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity’s report (2010) Winner of the Coming up Taller Award (2008)

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 100%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 0%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 0%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 100%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 0%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 0%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 100%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 0%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 0%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 66.7%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 33.3%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 0%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 50%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 0%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 0%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 0%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 100%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Tesfaye Ayalew

Holly, great idea! The beautiful game can change kids life. I’m actually doing similar project. Thank for sharing your idea!!

Photo of Lisa Helfman

Your data showing impact on health and education is staggering - well done.  I hope you can reach the 50 schools on your waitlist!

Photo of Holly O'Donnell

We do too, Lisa! Thanks for your kind words.

Photo of Maud Schaafsma

You have 3 focuses in after school activities - soccer, creative writing and service learning. Each part contributes to an essential support for children's physical health, cognitive and imaginative work and learning about social justice. I'd encourage the group to think about the potential for service-based learning to create opportunities for children to learn about the communities they live in - and understand social justice issues in their own back yards. You may already do this - if not - Ernest Morell's Critical Literacy and Urban Youth: Pedagogies for Dissent and Liberation is a great place to start to make these connects and build project-based learning.

You should pursue funding from the Wallace Foundation
. They are very invested in developing leadership in urban organizations.

Photo of Holly O'Donnell

Hi, Maud, thanks for the great suggestions! Yes, a large part of our service learning curriculum involves understanding the community. The four-step project includes identifying a problem in the community, brainstorming ideas to help, working as a team to create and execute a plan in tandem with community members, and then reflecting on their impact.

Photo of Andre Wicks

Holly, thank you for your contribution.  I had the pleasure of evaluating your idea and think the program is well developed and well resourced; making it poised for successful scalability.  I live in the PNW and noticed on the website that there is an America Scores in Seattle, WA.  I live in Spokane, WA and soccer is huge in our community.  Spokane is also home to the poorest zip code in the state, which is the focus area of the collective impact initiative I lead called THEZONE Project.  I'd be really interested in learning more, and learning about the possibility of America Scores finding it's way to Spokane.  Please do me the favors of contacting me,, and reviewing my idea here.  Thank you!

Andre Wicks 

Photo of Holly O'Donnell

Hi Andrew, thanks for your feedback! Our affiliates are locally run so feel free to reach out directly to the Executive Director in Seattle, Carole Kelley: