Unique program for underprivileged students has new home

Access team finishes strong at 2018 Urban Nationals in New York City.
Access team finishes strong at 2018 Urban Nationals in New York City.


Access Youth Academy, which had been operating at UCSD, opens spacious center in southeastern San Diego


To students attending the Access Youth Academy, squash is more than a vegetable.

It is a unique sport, a key ingredient in the academy’s recipe for propelling students from economically- challenged neighborhoods to success in the academic and professional world.

Since the academy’s establishment in 2006, it has operated in conjunction with the Preuss charter school at UCSD. So the academy’s 100-plus students have been bused on school days to the La Jolla campus from their neighborhoods in San Diego.

At Preuss, they attended middle school through high school classes offered while the academy provided intensive academic support as well as training and competition in squash, a game akin to racquetball that originated in England and is popular on the East Coast.

The reliance on UCSD’s facilities for the academy’s mentorship and squash activities ends this summer with the opening of its Southeastern San Diego Academic and Athletic Community Center at 704 Euclid Avenue.

Access Youth Center students working on SAT test prep.
Access Youth Center students working on SAT test prep.

The project

Built on a vacant lot with the support of a $5.5 million grant from the city of San Diego as well as philanthropical sources, the two-story structure will offer greatly expanded space for squash, academics and business activities situated behind a glass-walled entry.

The structure features seven singles squash courts, a doubles squash court, locker rooms, showers, classrooms, storage, a computer lab, college prep room, instructional space, offices, a conference room, and a kitchen and break room.

“It’s so spacious, it’s so welcoming, it’s so inviting,” said Susan Taylor, one of several North County residents who serve on the academy’s 22-member board of directors. “There’s eight squash courts, so kids won’t have to wait in line to get on a court. ...

“The academic areas feel very collaborative. There’s a great sense that there will be collaboration between all of the students and the folks who are providing that academic excellence for them. ... It feels very collaborative, very welcoming.”

Del Mar resident Mary Walshok, who is dean of the UCSD Extension Program, said constructing the center was a long-term goal of the academy board and it will allow the program to greatly enlarge its enrollment beyond the 180 pupils now served.

“I joined the board to be a part of the effort to find land, to build the building, and to expand the program so it could serve multiple ... schools across the region, but also be located in a part of the city that was more accessible to first-generation and low-income communities,” Walshok said. “I have been on the board through the planning of that, the selection of the site, and the fundraising to get it built. We started with just a a small program at Preuss and a big idea to grow it.”

The new location allows the academy to grow by forging partnerships with multiple schools and to reach hundreds and potentially thousands of students.

Djulia Sekariyongo-Koita
Djulia Sekariyongo-Koita parlayed her experience at the academy, where she was a national squash champion, into a scholarship to UC Berkeley. She is entering her junior year and is captain of the campus squash team.

The mission

Not only does the academy assist students through their middle and high school years, it helps them get scholarships to colleges and universities, It continues to provide support for them through college and the start of their professional careers.

The academy has recorded a 100 percent high school graduation rate and a 100 percent college acceptance rate, and secured $8.6 million in scholarship awards, academy officials say.

“We help them beyond college,” said Development Director Cindy Sweeney. “We help them two years into the work force. So, we don’t just get them into college. We make sure they have work after college.”

The academy’s services are provided free to students thanks to generous contributions from donors throughout the region. Access’s student body primarily comes from San Diego’s culturally diverse mid-city and southeastern sections.

That demographic led to the decision to locate the center in southeastern San Diego, which has a population of about 165,000 spread over more than 10 distinct communities.

Demographically, the section has shifted in recent decades with the influx of more immigrants.

About 32 percent of the households have annual incomes of less than $35,000. About 24 percent of families with children under 18 are below the federal poverty level.

“To be able to offer these kids the same perks, the same opportunities, the same access that many North County, particularly North County coastal, kids have, is an extraordinary way to level the playing field,” said Taylor, a Scripps Health executive.

“We give the kids a 12-year commitment, starting in the seventh grade,” she said. “We tell them to dream as big as they can. We hold their hands through the process and we will not let them fail.”

While the lynchpin of the academy is squash, it is not the end game, said Executive Director Renato Paiva, a former champion in the sport who has been with the program from its infancy.

“Don’t think this is an athletic program,” said Paiva, who was head coach of Harvard University’s squad before accepting the San Diego job. “It’s actually an education program that uses squash and sports to hook (students) to come back every day. ... The carrot is the sports, but the real importance here is an education.”

Djulia Sekariyongo-Koita parlayed her experience at the academy, where she was a national squash champion, into a scholarship to UC Berkeley. She is entering her junior year and is captain of the campus squash team.

Sekariyong-Koita, who spent much of her childhood with a foster family, said she was attracted to enter the Access program when she was in the sixth grade at Preuss. She observed that there seemed to be a family atmosphere among students and staff.

“There was this one video going around at the time and the kids in the video talked about it being a family type of program, and that kind of sold it to me,” she said. “I wanted to play other sports, but then when I got into squash, I dumped the other sports, and stuck with this one.”

The movement

The concept for the academy stems from a pioneering approach launched in the Boston area by Greg Zaff, the founder and CEO of SquashBusters Inc. It brought together the idea of combining squash with academics for youths in needy neighborhoods. The approach came to be known as the Urban Squash Movement and has spread to about 20 cities nationwide.

Access Board Chairman President Blair Sadler, a La Jolla resident, grew up on the East Coast and became enthralled with squash. He went on to become a nationally-ranked player and continues to play to this day.

“It really changed my life,” said Sadler, a past president of Rady Children’s Hospital. “The people I spent my time with in my class were other squash players who were also committed to fitness and learning.”

He was well aware of Zaff’s efforts and the Urban Squash Movement.

“We’re in San Diego and I’m playing squash with a bunch of other guys, old White guys who love the game but have a commitment to social justice and to inclusion, and said, ‘Gee, why don’t we try to create an urban squash program here.”

The challenge was that unlike other metropolitan areas, there are no schools in San Diego County that offer squash.

That led the group to approach Preuss leaders with the idea of starting a squash and child development program at their UCSD site. To see the dream of the Southeastern San Diego Academic and Athletic Community Center and the academy’s growth being realized is especially gratifying, Sadler said.

“Personally, it’s the most heartwarming, rewarding thing I’ve ever been privileged to be a part of in my entire life, in addition to Rady Children’s Hospital,” he said. “Those are probably the two things I feel most lucky to be a part of. It becomes a mission and a passion.”

For more information on the center and upcoming events, go to accessyouthacademy.org