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Fourth-grader Yarely Gonzalez was eager to join the First Tee program — the only one in the country to combine golfing and academic skill building.

“I got really excited because I wanted to learn a new sport,” said Yarely, who attends Leopold Elementary School. “I already learned how to play soccer so I wanted to learn to play golf.”

She likes other things about it as well.

“It’s really fun. I get to spend time with my friends and it’s kind of fun basically with our teachers because they play with us, too,” she said.

Yarely was participating in a pizza party and chance to play miniature golf with other third- through fifth-graders in the First Tee of South Central Wisconsin program at Vitense Golfland as a reward right before winter break.

First Tee is a youth development organization introducing the game of golf and reinforcing values through the sport. First Tee of South Central Wisconsin is the only First Tee program in the country that adds the academic component through learning centers.

Students work on skills such as math and reading, then get a chance to learn to play golf at three venues — Vitense, Nine Springs Golf Course or Cherokee Country Club. In Madison, the free program serves seven schools and six community centers.

“We do this to try to tackle the growing achievement gap,” said Nate Savado, outreach manager for First Tee of South Central Wisconsin. “If we can give a hand to help out that is what we are going to do.”

Savado said that at first the program focused on math skills, but last year at most participating sites reading was implemented.

“A lot of kids couldn’t read the story problems (in math),” Savado said. “So we had to get back to the basics.”

Yasmine Clendening, a fifth-grader at Marquette Elementary School, said learning to play golf is “hard because there is a whole bunch of steps.”

Brennan Abegglen, a fourth-grader at Leopold, said his favorite part of the program is the reading and he believes it is helping him when he takes a test. Because he is in a dual language immersion program at Leopold, he likes the extra work with his English language skills.

Rosie Gittens, community schools resource coordinator at Leopold, said an advantage of the program is the chance to do reading outside of the classroom. The students read articles about topics they like and have wording that differs, depending on the skill level.

The students also work each week on core values of First Tee — respect, responsibility, sportsmanship, honesty, integrity, confidence, courtesy, perseverance and judgment. For example, the students work on being respectful around others trying to read and they practice being respectful to other players when they are learning golf, Gittens said.

She said many kids haven’t been exposed to golf and can’t afford to come to the miniature golf facility.

Most of the students in the program come from families with low incomes. Currently, there are 12 Leopold students in the program, which does not cost the school, but enrollment could be 24, Gittens said. She said basketball is far more popular at Leopold, with 75 students participating, but there also are some conflicts because of the day of the week First Tee is offered.

Savado is aware of the discrepancy, but said the program can connect interested students to coaches and offers scholarships for students who stick with the program as they get older.

“Kids can’t afford to play golf … So what we are trying to do is bring golf to kids who can’t necessarily afford it,” he said. “When I was growing up, I didn’t know about golf. I knew about basketball.”

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