When Earnest Fingers was attending Oxon Hill High School in Maryland and playing on the basketball team, academics weren’t his priority.
Until he flunked out.
Fingers remembers that experience vividly, more than a decade later.
“It was embarrassing,” he said. “I hated high school. It just didn’t make sense to me. All I heard was ‘you have to go to school, you have to go to school.’ ”
Now a few miles away, across the bridge, Fingers wants to make sure young athletes don’t get caught in the same rut.
He’s director of a new program at West Potomac High School, called “Stepping it Up,” which aims to get students on the right path academically.
The program was funded in large part with a $19,000 grant from the Washington Redskins, which required matching funds. Most of the rest of the money was raised by the football program, said West Potomac coach Eric Henderson.
Fingers, who completed his undergraduate degree at Hampton University and went to Michigan State for his graduate and doctoral degrees, arrived at college and flourished academically.
“Nobody ever connected the dots for me and told me doing well in high school opens up so many opportunities,” Fingers said.
Fingers and his program assistant, Kathryn Tesh, are working with 60 West Potomac students – not all are athletes, Henderson said, although most play a sport.
The students spend 14 hours a week – from 2:30 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday – working with Tesh and Fingers on everything from homework to study habits. Parents of the students meet with Fingers and Tesh monthly to discuss the student’s standing.
The program, funded through the end of the academic year, also includes an emphasis on community service. Participants will work with students at two area elementary schools, Fingers said.
Henderson said he has organized in-season and out-of-season study halls for his players in the past. It’s more important during the off-season, he said, because during the season student-athletes have a pretty decent motivator to hit the books – they want to remain academically eligible.
“If you can dominate their time and structure their lives so they can’t go home and goof off, there’s a motivation to doing well in school,” Henderson said. “If we [could] somehow continue that in the offseason, that the kids would be much better off.”
When Henderson found out about the Redskins grant program in 2010, he applied, figuring it was a good fit. West Potomac was one of five high schools in Virginia chosen to receive the grant monies, Henderson said.
Working with the Redskins and West Potomac in putting together “Stepping it Up” is Athlife, a nonprofit organization that provides education and career services to athletes.
Fingers received his bachelor’s in psychology from Hampton, then a master’s in community and counseling psychology from Michigan State, and his doctorate is in educational administration.
On the college level he’s worked with student-athletes at Michigan State and the University of Maryland, serving as a learning specialist – working with athletes on everything from their studies to adjusting to college life.
That helps, he said, to target areas in working with high school athletes.
“It’s a benefit for me,” he said. “At the college level, they’re always saying, ‘If they had learned those habits in high school … ‘ “
In addition to working with students on study habits, Fingers said he hopes to connect with the student participants as they prepare for the next phase of their lives.
“Our vision is to have everyone college-ready,” he said. “Not everybody may end up going to college, but we want them to be ready.”
But Finger said his goals for the program lie beyond the walls of West Potomac High School.
“If we can make this a successful model, we can take it to other schools in the county. Hopefully we can create a model that can be used across the county – and maybe across the state – one day,” he said.