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Alum connects kids with lacrosse

Soccer practice has just ended and Erik Myhren is loading a chatty group of 9-year-old girls into his van for the two-hour drive home, with half a dozen stops spread out between northeast Denver and east Aurora.

An urban elementary school teacher in the Park Hill neighborhood for the past 13 years, Myhren always has a group of students he chooses to follow and work with outside of school — every afternoon, evening and on weekends. They go on ski and rafting trips, do homework, eat dinner together, visit museums and, depending on the season, play on soccer, basketball and even lacrosse teams.

Myhren introduced the elite, predominantly white sport of lacrosse to inner city kids several years ago, and a handful of them fell in love. The story is so powerful that it became the subject of City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story — a documentary film now touring the festival circuit and picking up awards along the way.

The film’s stars are Myhren’s second group of students, whom he followed from fourth through eighth grade. Today, they’re in high school and Myhren’s spending time with his third group — fourteen 9-year-old girls he started coaching when they were in kindergarten. He plans to stay with them through eighth grade, too.

He says “I love you” as some of them exit the van. He gets out to talk to parents. One mom and a couple of siblings are riding with him. There’s a plate he needs to return to a grandma who fixed him dinner for the last drive. The ride home takes two hours because the girls who met in kindergarten at Denver’s Hallett Elementary School are now spread out all over the metro area. But they’re still family, so Myhren makes the drive.

“I get really involved and attached with the group of kids I work with,” he says. “Education is supremely important. It’s why I’m a teacher. But I have a different vision of what education is than maybe our public school system. Fortunately, I have the resources to be able to provide other opportunities outside of school for the kids that I really care about.”

Myhren was the kid who always hated school — elementary, middle, high school, even most of college. But he loved working with kids and after several years in sales, he decided to change careers and earned his teaching certificate and a master’s degree in education from the University of Denver.

In his own experiences as a struggling student, Myhren was always more interested in the teachers than the subjects. He performed well for the teachers who made him feel he was special. In his urban education courses at DU, Myhren found a professor who not only built his confidence, but shared his ideals.

“I stressed the relational aspects of teaching, particularly with kids who are marginalized by society,” says Nick Cutforth, professor of research methods and statistics at DU’s Morgridge College of Education. “In order to tap into their brilliance, you’ve got to be able to know the child and they’ve got to be able to know you.”

Myhren stood out to Cutforth as someone who asked amazing, critical questions that got to the heart of teaching. It became clear to Cutforth early into Myhren’s career that he was a great teacher, one who would actually do the kinds of things Cutforth talked about in his courses. Myhren devoted himself wholeheartedly to developing relationships with students and families.

Right away, Myhren, who started out as a fourth-grade teacher at Hallett, created programs for running, soccer, basketball, skiing — opportunities that had never existed for the kids in his school before. Myhren soon realized he had to do more than just show up and coach. Many parents worked multiple jobs and didn’t have cars. So, Myhren would have to pick kids up for practice and games and take them home. He noticed, too, that not all kids were into sports. Though excellent art, drama, dance and other enrichment programs existed around the city, the kids in his community didn’t know about them and had no way of getting to them.

“The biggest obstacles that prevent kids from participating are transportation and awareness,” he says. “Parents don’t realize programs are out there. They think they cost too much money. I find that the people who operate these programs want to work with our kids, so I started building a transportation model and partnering with schools and a lot of great programming.”

Myhren created a nonprofit in 2007 that connects kids with activities. His hope is that through Knuw Seeds the same thing he’s been able to do with a small number of kids can be implemented on a larger scale. If Myhren could work closely with multiple groups and teams at the same time, he would. And he did try in his early years of teaching. At one point, he was coaching six teams. But he decided that for what he wanted to do, he was going to have to work with one smaller group at a time. The results of that decision are clear on a ride with Myhren and his kids and in City Lax.

The players featured in the film are students that Myhren taught in fourth grade and then again in fifth grade. The lacrosse community, including DU’s players and coaches, embraced the fledgling team. The idea for the movie came from Myhren’s brother, Tor Myhren.

Tor and filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite produced the feature-length film that documents the team’s first season of competitive play, and the personal struggles and triumphs of the players and their families.

“I don’t think it’s a lacrosse movie,” Erik Myhren says. “It’s a movie about kids and the potential they have when we give them the right opportunities and how important it is for them to have something they’re in love with, just like the rest of us. You have to have something that gets you up every morning. For some of these kids it was lacrosse for a while, for some of them, it still is.”

At the Sonoma International Film Festival in April 2010, those players were met with a standing ovation and the film won Best Documentary and the Audience Award.

Today, when Myhren is not traveling to film festivals, coaching or driving girls home from practice, he’s teaching at Stedman Elementary School. In 2007, the state of Colorado decided to close Hallett, where enrollment had been dropping and only 26 percent of students were proficient in reading, writing and math according to state tests. Most of the Hallett students were re-directed to Stedman. Last year, Myhren decided to switch from teaching fourth grade to kindergarten.

“There’s none of that testing pressure, which I think has been the most welcome relief,” he says. “The priority is still for kids to enjoy coming to school and enjoy learning. I think that’s why we all go into teaching, because we want kids to love learning and value learning. But then you’re beaten over the head year after year about test scores and you see the consequences, not only for the school and teachers but also emotionally what it does to kids and communities of so-called failing schools.”

Cutforth says Myhren is anything but a conformist. He’s the first one to break the rules and be outspoken when something doesn’t make sense for kids, whether that’s deciding not to teach to the test, giving kids rides or taking a student into his home and adopting him.

“He bends the rules, but I think that’s what great teachers do,” Cutforth says. “Great teachers are subversive. They’re challenging the status quo, not for their own ideologies, but for the betterment of the kids.”

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