Standing Apart (By Standing Together) 

At Crockett's John Swett High School, adults remain active in the lives of students. Other schools could take a lesson.

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"Great," he says in a gravelly voice. "Then let's get out there and get ready to run two miles today."

"No, Spini, I won," she says, as if her coach didn't understand.

"Yeah, I know," he says with a wave. "See you out there. We're all going to run together today."

The athlete leaves with a mock pout, and Spini confides as she leaves, "Actually, I'm the one who needs the two miles."

Spini points to such interactions as one of his school's charms. "I'm not sure what I do here would work anywhere else," he says. "I've visited other schools and I imagine if I said, 'We're going a mile today,' the kids might just sit there and stare at me. Here, from day one, the students have the expectation that they're going to run. And that's what we do, first day of P.E., run a mile. And nobody says anything about it, they just go."

So what makes John Swett run?

"I think it has something to do with the fact that the kids see us here every day," he says. "It's not like the teachers all live in Crockett, but while they're here on campus, the school is small enough that they see us. I probably pass all of the kids in the hallway and if you're a team coach then you see the kids before a problem becomes a problem. Sometimes, I'll get a heads-up from somebody on campus to check on a student, and usually all I've got to say is just, 'Calm down. I know you're upset, we're just trying to see that you don't do something that gets you suspended.' Usually it works."

Crockett trusts its students to its educators. "There are a lot of single-parent families here now, and I think the kids are looking for structure, for a father-figure, and the town supports that," Spini continues. "When you missed practice you didn't play. So I told them, 'Come out anyway.' The kid would come out, wrapped in a blanket sitting on the sideline, even when they weren't feeling up to practice and I said, 'You know what, that's great — at least when you're here you're learning something.' We built a lot of great teams over the years, and even better people."

One of those people is John Angell. Angell is a native son who played football for one of Spini's championship teams. He's also the last man to coach John Swett to a football title. Among the dozen jobs he seems to do, today he's working as a site supervisor at the school. But the hallways don't seem to need much supervision, as evidenced by the fact that Angell and another supervisor have a half hour to talk.

Sports make a difference in a place like Crockett, Angell says. "It gives the town something to rally around." After Angell's team ran the table 11-0 and traveled to the state championship game, he took a job in Benicia, coaching a bigger school in a tougher league. "They had, like, 25 moms and dads show up to help," he recalls. "They really supported the team. And you know what? It wasn't the same feeling at all."

In 1989, when Angell himself played football for John Swett, the town bought the playoff winners jackets. "In '05 after we won, they opened the community center for us and a man from the town put on a banquet for the whole team and everyone connected to it. I think the guy bought dinner for 300 people. I don't think that happens anywhere else."

Nor do players elsewhere bond in quite the same way. John Swett is a tiny 1-A school with an enrollment of just 550 students. No other Bay Area school competes at that level. So out of necessity, Swett has to compete in a league filled with larger 2-A schools. And when it's time for the post-season, the Crockett kids travel far to compete. Non-league opponents are in places like Clear Lake, South Fork, Middletown, and other flyspecks to the north. Swett's team spends more time on the bus in one preseason road trip than the rest of its opponents do in their entire season. Angell's team finished up the 2002 season with an eight-hour trek to Ferndale, near Eureka. "They either get real close to each other or real ticked off," Angell says of the team.

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