It's quarter to eight on a sunny Tuesday morning at the Chi Chi
Rodriguez Golf Club in Clearwater, Fla. Old men are putting and
chatting on the practice green. Maintenance carts are zipping
around. A gaggle of golfers gathers next to a long line of carts
at the first tee.
Meanwhile, on a patch of grass in front of the pro shop, 36
fifth-graders and four adults stand ramrod-straight at attention
around a flagpole. They observe a moment of silence. A boy and a
girl raise the U.S. flag, and everybody repeats the Pledge of
Allegiance. Then the group marches single- file toward a
one-story stucco building about 100 feet away that houses two
classrooms and the Nicklaus Family Center, a large, multipurpose
``Those are the luckiest kids in the world,'' says Ben Davis,
71, while taking a few practice strokes on the putting green.
``Imagine, going to school on a golf course.''
The school on a golf course is the Modesta Robbins Partnership
School, a one-grade, privately funded public school for what
educators call ``discouraged learners.'' As Uncle Sam slashes
the public education budget, privately funded public schools are
becoming an increasingly viable alternative. In Florida's
Pinellas County, which includes Clearwater, there are six such
Modesta Robbins exists because the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth
Foundation pays the costs of construction, maintenance,
administration, classroom materials and the salaries of two
assistants. The Pinellas County Board of Education supplies two
teachers and a principal. The board and the foundation select
the students from a pool of kids who have had serious problems
in regular schools.
What makes Modesta Robbins unique is its golf-based curriculum.
Students shadow the golf club's staff in the pro shop, snack bar
and business office. To study flora and fauna in science class,
students sometimes don wetsuits and wade into the course's
swamps and lakes. Classes have used Babe Zaharias's
autobiography, This Life I've Led, as a textbook, and issues of
Golf Digest and Senior Golfer constitute reading units. Posters
in which Snoopy illustrates golf etiquette adorn bathroom doors.
And, of course, everybody can play golf daily.
``All schools should be like ours,'' says John Hauser, an
honor-roll student. ``They give us work that makes us learn, and
we get to play golf every day. I love coming to school.''
I love coming to school. This from a boy who last year, in the
fourth grade at one of Clearwater's regular public schools, had
grades so poor that his mother thought he was a lost cause. ``I
was in tears all year,'' says Cathy Hauser. ``He was a lump and
a compulsive liar. I thought I'd lost him. But this school has
saved his life.''
Saving lives was the intent of the school's founder, Bill Hayes,
47. He grew up in Helensburgh, Scotland, where his father had
been transferred by a U.S. manufacturing company. Hayes took up
golf at the age of eight, playing mostly at the renowned
Gleneagles golf resort. When he was 13, however, Hayes was
sexually assaulted and dumped into a well by a pack of teenage
boys. He was rescued by passersby who heard his cries for help.
``The attack scared me to death,'' says Hayes, ``but it also
made me wonder how I could change the world.''
In 1970 Hayes graduated from Wagner College in Staten Island,
N.Y., and, at 22, moved to Florida to become a golf pro. He took
a job at the famous Seminole Golf Club to work on his game, and
over the next five years he played a number of mini-tour events.
But in 1975, as he was planning a tryout for the PGA Tour
Qualifying School, Hayes was involved in a freak accident in
which another player's golf club struck him under the chin,
fracturing his neck at the sixth cervical vertebra. The injury
was not crippling, but Hayes says, ``That was the beginning of
the end of my playing career.''
That fall Hayes enrolled in a graduate program in education at
the University of Tampa, which he paid for by working as a
counselor at the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center in
Clearwater. It was there that Hayes first used golf to help
troubled kids. ``I snuck clubs and plastic balls into the
center,'' he says. ``We'd play tournaments through the halls,
using toilets for holes. That was where I discovered that golf
gets kids' attention.''
Hayes started taking youngsters from the center to golf courses
and teaching them to play. He bought them clothes and equipment.
He taught them manners. And he gave them math lessons, solving
problems based on shaft lengths, club-face lofts and pounds of
fertilizer needed per square foot of turf.
In December 1979, Hayes took a group of kids to watch Chi Chi
Rodriguez play a practice round at the J.C. Penney Classic in
nearby Largo. Hayes and his charges introduced themselves to
Rodriguez, who agreed to give a talk that night at the detention
center. Hayes and Rodriguez hit it off, and the following May
the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, with Hayes at the helm
and Rodriguez as the marquee fund-raiser, was officially opened.
By 1983 the foundation was running after-school and
community-service programs for 200 youths, and in 1985 the
foundation won the National Golf Foundation's award for the best
youth program in the country. But Hayes wasn't satisfied. His
goal was to create a school for disadvantaged, at-risk kids. ``I
want to start a privately funded public school on a golf
course,'' Hayes said during an interview about the foundation on
ABC's World News Tonight in November 1986. Bill Bennett, then
Secretary of Education, saw the interview and called Hayes late
that night. Two days later, Hayes was in Washington, giving a
three-hour presentation at the Department of Education.
Despite this hopeful start, there were seven years of intense
wrangling before the school opened. Hayes had to convince
Pinellas County and Florida state department of education
officials that a curriculum based on golf would work. He had
wanted a full-fledged elementary school, but setting up a
separate curriculum for each grade proved too daunting.
It also took awhile to raise the $2.8 million to construct the
school's buildings and golf course. And there was another
problem: Hayes wanted the school to be racially diverse, and he
wanted to put it at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club, which is in
a mostly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood. Local
homeowners and the Ku Klux Klan weren't pleased.
Hayes refused to back down, and the KKK and the homeowners'
associations have been silent since the school opened in
September 1993. Doubters on the school board also have come
around. ``At first we were skeptical of the idea,'' says Howard
Hinesley, the superintendent of public schools in Pinellas
County. ``But skepticism quickly became enthusiasm. It's one of
the most successful startups I've seen in 27 years as an
Students thrive under Modesta Robbins's hands-on, real-life
curriculum. ``Now I can help my mother run the cash register at
the bowling alley where she works,'' says Adam Harvey, 12.
Science, taught by Doug Boyles, the course's horticultural
manager, is the most popular class. Almost every flower, plant,
tree and bush on the course is, at some point, tended by
students. ``Instead of working out of a science book, we get to
do this,'' said Tiffany Myers, 10, as she repotted plants at the
course's nursery one day in February.
Perhaps the only problem with Modesta Robbins is that it has
only one grade. A lack of money is not the issue. Besides
contributions from Rodriguez's foundation, there are other
sources: In February, for example, Jack Nicklaus, Ray Floyd and
billiards legend Steve Mizerak joined other celebrities at a
fund-raiser for Modesta Robbins that boosted the amount pledged
over five years to $6 million, including $5 million from Nestle.
But given that public school administrators are slow to embrace
new ideas, Hayes will be happy if he gets approval to add a
sixth grade by the fall of '96. ``We'll take whatever we can
get,'' he says.
Teachers, students and parents want more. ``I wish they had all
grades,'' says Matt Summer, 12, class of '94. Before Modesta
Robbins, Matt spent three years in a dropout-prevention program.
Last June, as one of two top students, he was awarded a $2,000
``He's back to struggling a bit now in a regular school,'' says
Matt's mother, Deborah Summer. ``But my son's been blessed.
He's like a flower that finally bloomed.''