“We are the tiny schools that the California Interscholastic Federation can’t serve,” said Sterne School Athletic Director Craig Brewer. “We need a different flexibility with all the rules from eligibility to attendance to age to gender to actual game rules and sports chosen.”
So what do you do when there is no sports league for your school? You create your own. Enter the Bay Area Small School Athletic League (BASSAL).
“The league is still in the creation stages with the most together sport being basketball,” said Stanbridge Academy Athletic Director Mark Kelley.
There are currently four schools in the league. In addition to Stanbridge and Sterne, Star Academy in San Rafael, CA and Compass High School in San Mateo are also members.
But creating the league was easier said then done. Most of the schools—because of their size—don’t have on-campus facilities to host games or the resources to pay for referees.
“Our team consists of 13 junior high and high school students, because we only have 13 uniforms,” said Mark. “Space for holding practices and games has been donated by other local independent schools and organizations.”
Organizations that have donated space to Stanbridge include the YMCA in San Mateo and Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough, CA.
“Crystal Springs Uplands School is pleased to donate gymnasium space to Stanbridge Academy, because we believe in Stanbridge's mission to help students with learning differences thrive and develop their academic, social, and emotional capabilities to their fullest potential,” said Crystal Springs Uplands School Assistant Athletic Director Rob Cannone. “Stanbridge Academy is a wonderful and unique institution providing a safe, nurturing community to its students and this small gesture on our part is a recognition of their good work.”
In addition to having a population of approximately 100 students or less, all of the current schools in BASSAL have one other thing in common: they all cater to students with learning differences.
“I knew that the Bulldogs would be the perfect team for me,” said a Stanbridge 9th grader. “It’s easier for me to move around the court and things like that than it would be at a “regular” school or playing against “regular” teams.”
Craig says his first principal used to say, “Special education is just good teaching.”
“To a large extent that is the case in coaching,” said Craig. “It isn’t that the kids need so much more as so many of them are just less familiar with being in motion.”
One Stanbridge 11th grader, who is playing on the team for his third year, said the game has taught him a lot about proprioception, or the relative position of his body to others.
“Spacing is one thing that, when I first came to Stanbridge, I couldn’t do,” said the center. “It’s helpful everywhere; my room and stuff is more clean.”
Additionally, Craig says the benefits of teaching basketball extend to lessons about time management, dedication, sportsmanship, and self-confidence.
“Sometimes I used to be lonely,” said another Stanbridge 9th grader. “Now I have the team, and I’m playing for the whole school.”
Craig also says playing a popular sport gains these students access to certain social situations, something he calls the “smoke-filled room phenomenon.”
“The fact that kids with social difficulties are insulated in tiny, homogenous populations almost reinforces the problem by not having more interactions with different kids,” said Craig. “Through basketball, they will be able to comment when attending a cocktail party about playing a zone or man-to-man defense, or doing slide drills until their legs cramped. This is about comfort and access into subconscious trust circles in adulthood.”
Despite the present make-up, Craig says the league is open to any small school in the bay area and is working to incorporate a number of other local institutions including The Marin School, Lycée Français de San Francisco, and The Phillips Academy.
“We are going to create a group of schools who, even in mistakes, will be trying to do the right thing for personal accountability and self-esteem, not for w’s and l’s,” said Craig. “Maybe we can help our students be part of a more civilized discourse by making them play fairly, if not necessarily equally.”