Union Academy

A day at YSC Academy

Featured image: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Since June of 2016 when I started having the privilege of teleconferencing with Bethlehem Steel Head Coach Brendan Burke once a week as part of PSP’s coverage of the team, he has modeled for me that the Philadelphia Union organization strongly protects the privacy of the adolescents under its care at YSC Academy. As a former longtime independent school teacher myself, the idea that growing teenagers shouldn’t have their youth taken from them prematurely is a principle I find easy to respect.

In what follows below I do not connect the adolescents I was privileged to meet and interview to what they said. The event on which I report was conducted in an atmosphere of trustful sharing and mutual confidence that is consciously nurtured in the school among the adults leading it and the adolescents experiencing it. I will not violate that ethos.


Research suggests Dr. Nooha Ahmed-Lee is the only woman in the United States who is Head of School at an all-boys college preparatory school.

Dr. Ahmed-Lee runs YSC Academy, the overtly college preparatory part of the Philadelphia Union’s player development program that is equally one part professional training for elite youth male soccer players, one part preparation of those boys to succeed in institutions of higher education throughout the country, and one part a socially and psychologically healthy daily community in which the adults and adolescents pursue soccer and academics together.

Quite rare

While founder Richie Graham’s academy is only in its fourth year of existence – members of this year’s senior class helped interview the academy’s initial group of faculty hires, English teacher Carl Abramovitz, for example – the balanced equality of the twin purposes of its existence is remarkable in the soccer culture of the current United States.

Only a small percentage of YSC’s students will ever play soccer professionally. But all will play the game beyond high school. And to do that successfully they must be prepared to succeed at university and at whatever comes after the university diploma. Richie Graham has stated publicly that it is ”irrelevant” whether an academy graduate ever plays for the Union. Instead, the goal is that the student maximize his ability to achieve his passions in life, plural, because after age 35 most professional soccer-playing careers are over, and something productive must follow.

Privileged and elite

YSC Academy is dually privileged and dually elite. As readers of PSP’s news roundups know, the soccer under the overall direction of Academy Director Tommy Wilson is outstanding.

YSC Head of School Dr. Nooha Ahmed-Lee. Photo courtesy of YSC Academy.

And academics under the direction of Dr. Ahmed-Lee seem excellent. In 2016, 12 U.S. colleges and universities thought so. The only reason YSC does not boast 100% university matriculation is that graduates Yosef Samuel and Auston Trusty chose to pursue professional soccer careers directly from high school. Samuel has signed with Bethlehem Steel FC, and Trusty with the Philadelphia Union.

In December 2016 all YSC college candidates have college plans, and as time passes those plans are crystallizing. As of Friday, December 16, 2016, the list of colleges that have accepted YSC candidates is Penn, Dartmouth (2), Wake Forest (2), Gettysburg, Kentucky, Temple, and Liberty. Other students are typically waiting for key university decisions, financial aid and so forth. Academic program interests mentioned by four interviewed, diverse seniors included kinesiology, two economics possibilities, and a pre-med with an interest in neurology.

Academic variation and remediation

There are clear, different levels of academic performance present in YSC classrooms. That should surprise no one given the wide diversity of backgrounds manifest in the 73 boys. Each admissions decision has evaluated academics on a case-by-case basis.

The school addresses the academic variations in several ways. Foremost, to me, is that no one can escape reciting in class every day. That means each teacher has an idea every day how each young man is doing with the day’s material. A further ramification of the small size and individual attention is that remedial intervention can be prompt. Additionally, the resources of the learning management system available via each individual’s MacBook Pro and the ability to Skype as needed with each teacher can address remediation needs.

Furthermore, it is clear that the culture of the academy encourages the boys to be proactive when they don’t understand subject matter. They ask during class. Then they are encouraged to ask each other, that being a purpose of the square tables at the academy rather than the more typical individual desks seen in other educational environments. Next, students can see their teachers outside of class — or Dr. Ahmed-Lee, or Dr. Sullivan, or College Counsellor Beverly Brooks, or School Administrator Jackie Erixxon, or any other likely and available adult when they need help.

A visit highlight

At 7:53 am an older man, a coach or a trainer, began greeting a steady stream of adolescents who poured through the front door of YSC Sports’ soccer facility. He knew each young man by name and shook hands with each individually. His greeting modelled a behavior that is a salient, deliberate characteristic of school culture, whether it is adolescent to adolescent, adolescent to known adult, known adult to adolescent, or adolescent to a strange, unknown adult.

At the end of morning practice as the boys filed past us from the locker room to cross County Line Road to the school, all addressed my host Jim Pierce as “Jim” and introduced themselves to me with a smile, a name and a handshake. A 67 year-old memory, and 67 year-old ears, didn’t get many names, but my eyes “got” all the direct, smiling, self-confident faces.

Personal responsibility and accountability, aka, trust

Students and teachers – and guests – are expected to get themselves to classes on time by themselves. There are no bells.

I was late to my first class, a Senior English Creative Writing section that involved reading poems aloud, articulating observations about them, and then being led into deeper analysis by the teacher, Carl Abramovitz. There were nine or ten boys in the room. All participated at some point, an overtly articulated characteristic of every subsequent class I saw. Each different idea presented was treated seriously and respectfully by the presenter’s peers. The classroom atmosphere encouraged intellectual risk-taking.

Philadelphia-area observers of independent school college preparatory education such as Baldwin, Haverford School, Agnes Irwin, and Episcopal would have comfortably recognized the process and would have been right at home with it, even as they commented favorably on the degree of ethnic and school-background diversity present in the room.

In a ninth grade ancient history class we “unpacked” about 100 lines of Homer’s Iliad, searching for the social structure of Bronze Age Homeric societies in ancient Hellas. The lesson and its presentation would be familiar to anyone familiar with Philadelphia-area college preparatory education.

After lunch I had been all through the layout of the fairly small physical space the academy occupies, so I assured my hosts I could find my way to my next class. The academy is place where everyone is very helpful — often before you ask, as I had already proven when needing to find a bathroom. In further illustration of the school’s culture of trusting participants to succeed in exercising personal responsibility, they believed me and sent me on my way, unescorted.

YSC Academy students working together. Photo courtesy of YSC Academy.

Curricular innovation in response to demand

The after lunch class was called “Entrepreneurship,” and is an elective for older boys. The teacher, Rich Sedmak of Schoolyard Ventures, is contracted to the school for the course rather than a full-time employee. He has five students. All five entrepreneurial projects involve real money with the real potential for profit, but also the real potential for loss.

One is a haircutting business on the YSC campus for boys too busy to get to a barbershop. Last year the proprietor charged $5. This year he raised his price to $10, saw no drop in demand, took out a loan from Schoolyard Ventures for a new piece of barbering equipment, and happened to pay off the loan during the class I attended. The pride on the young man’s face as he did so was obvious.

Other examples, all equally real, with all but one using Schoolyard Ventures start-up grants or loans, were ticket brokering (a water-damaged computer sold for $330 created the working capital), hair gel development and branding, organic skin lotion development, and protein bar development with the possibility of future contracting to supply the YSC Academy commissary. Each of the latter three involves contracting for production with real companies in the real marketplace when the projects get to that point.

Last period

The last period of the academic day at 2:35 pm I went to Plane Geometry where the subject was the Pythagorean Theorem, both recalling it and using it to visualize and solve a problem. The mixed-grade group exhibited definite “last period-itis,” an infamous disease well known to secondary school educators that is especially acute among teenage boys who have had no big muscle activity for hours. I was pleased to hear from Kelly Shank, the teacher, that she does not have them last period for every class. She called it a “waterfall” schedule, a term of art more recent that I. I am glad that athletes who have been cooped together continuously since 10:00 am don’t have to contend with last period’s physical restlessness every time they confront Euclid’s puzzles.

Final academic observations

YSC consciously strives for a livable balance among its three poles: academic requirements, athletic demands, and the maintenance of a healthy daily community. When a meeting about a student is required, all adults involved come to the meeting since the most complete, holistic collective view of the individual provides the best insight. Coaches on a pitch are as much teachers as are Geometricians with markers in front of a whiteboard. The investment of adult time is considerable, and the demonstrated commitment to individual students is commendable.

The balance would not be possible without modern information technology. Academy students who practice with Bethlehem Steel have a learning center at the Power Training Complex in Chester. They can watch videotaped classes, and Skype with teachers about the class or other issues. Everything is on an integrated academic management system called Canvass.

On a long bus ride to a Steel game in the Carolinas, a player’s MacBook Pro can access video of any missed class, and allow some Q & A with the teacher about it. When academy sides are away for several days at tournaments or similar multiple-game events, a teacher may also travel to administer study periods and serve as an on-the-spot resource.

While all members of the academy are experienced travelers for soccer, teachers make allowances for long away bus rides Steel away games or Developmental Academy plane flights to Texas. And coaches are understanding about seniors taking dual credit courses at Cabrini who face final exams out of sync with the academy’s schedule.

A closing personal note

After I left the Independent School world, I acquired the credentials for public schools at a local university. In those classrooms I could pick out the students from independent school or parochial school backgrounds, differentiating them from the public school veterans. All were equally able when reciting and testing. But the public school veterans almost never asked the teacher questions on their own initiative. The rest of us did so constantly, as a matter of course. YSC academy boys are askers of questions, most definitely.


  1. Wonder what the business model is when most go to College and will not turn professional. Will the one or two that do make this school profitable?

    • I did not attempt to explore the economics of the operation.
      That the Academy receives support from other aspects of founder Richie Graham’s business activities is anecdotally suggested by a contact who invited me to the “private session Q & A” that preceded the formal panel discussion on the night of Academy open house, John Parker. He made the initial contact with Academy people that I wanted to visit. He also connected me to the photographer when what the photographer gave me himself did not work. But John Parker is not part of Academy personnel on the Academy website.
      I do know that of the 73 boys currently studying both soccer and classes at YSC Academy, 60 are under the auspices of the Union and 13 are with FC Continental Delco. What that means or how that works I have no idea. My focus was more specifically on the nature and quality of the classroom environment.
      In my imagination, I would guess Richie Graham has earmarked the income produced by a portion of his assets to support the school. I have no idea whether he envisions that someday the enterprise might become economically self-sustaining, no idea. Good questions, I simply did not go there.

      • It would be my very calculated guess that those people funneling huge amounts of resources into player development and person (education) development are indeed hoping and waiting patiently for the compensation fees and solidarity payments training wheels to come off of the adolescent emerging on grown up version of US Soccer… this way the business model of producing excellent players benefits the investors who are also producing excellent student athletes.
        like it or not… kids are assets when it comes to this game—- all over the world— the sooner these assets become ‘part of the business model’ US Soccer and MLS has built our game around, the better IMO.

      • Your handle- channeling Orson, Hearst or Rosebud?
        Anyway kids are assets…that phrase is very troubling to me. Demeaning. Amanda Bynes or Lindsey Lohan or whoever train wreck you pick…not good for kids.
        Not everyone is Messi and academy run with idea of treating kids as machinery or property ….guess I am old-fashioned but how is that different from pimping? Will academies hold auctions yearly?
        Sorry if I offend but it does come across that way to me.
        I didn’t get that impression from Richie Graham so hopefully that is just your opinion and not the plan.

      • The new handles are all related to Radiohead.
        Just having some fun mixing it up.

  2. Thank you for the review, Tim. Definitely an intriguing story!
    A few follow_up questions:
    1. In normal non-game day how much time is devoted to classroom instruction and how much to training?
    2. Is there an accreditation process for the academy to be recognized as a school?
    3. What is tuition and what percentage of the budget is covered by tuition vs Union or other sources? Related to that…how is school impacted financially if Union has a bad year or two financially?
    4. When I first heard of academy I was under impression they had an offsite partnership with other private schools or outsourced the teaching. Sounds like that isn’t the case based on your article and one last month and I am surprised they have dedicated classes and teachers onsite. But you did mention seniors and Cabrini. Do you have more details?
    Thank you.

    • …I lost myself. I lost myself.
      el P.

      • El P,
        No need for a truce…I disagree often with you but my intention is to challenge not offend. And I do love your 2015 mantra of VPP.
        We both want soccer to grow in US but like John O, I want it to have American flavor. La Liga is only fun to watch 3 teams play each other…same three for last 25 years predating Messi and Ronaldo with proto/rel having no effect on that outcome. I’d’rather MLS not imitate that aspect no matter how much I enjoy El Clasico.
        Peace El P.

    • Morning practice began a bit before 8:30 AM and was over at 9:22. Classes started at 10:00 AM. Periods are 55 minutes. The Academic Day ends at 3:30 PM. The only break in the academic schedule is 20 minutes from 10:55 to 11:15, which is used for an all school assembly for announcements, guest introduction, short all community presentations. The kids eat when they are free and are free to get food when they need it. Afternoon practice started by 4:00, if not a little sooner. It is reported to last until 5:30, but I did not witness the end for myself.
      So, 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM allows for dress out to begin and showering and dressing at the end. That’s time on campus. Additionally there is the commute. There is a bus that collects New Jersey kids from a rest stop on the Garden State or the Jersey Turnpike near Brunswick. And there are the commutes from the four houses that bunk the boarders. It is a VERY long day, and there is real homework to complete within it.

      • Sorry. Missed a dimension of your question on time, UG.

        Academic time 5 1/2 hours a day. On pitch time 2 1/2 hours a day. Time” in transit” 2 hours a day. 10 hours a day on campus. No way to guess and generalize the commute time.
        You can see why the local barber makes money.

      • Thank you, Tim.
        So 5.5 hours school compares to normal HS.
        Interesting it is roughly under 12 hours training M_F if you factor getting changed and all. Open house one person I talked with said 3 hours daily which seemed high.
        Excellent report.
        Looking forward to more details about the fc Delco arrangement if you get chance for followup.
        I want school to succeed for kids and they sound more concerned about kids than their European counterparts.

    • Tuition is given somewhere on the Academy website.
      See my comment to Guido above for what I do not know about the finances, and Citizen Insane for his insights.

    • They were a learning center before they were a school. What that means or meant I have no idea.
      They contract in the Entrepreneurship teacher, he is not faculty in the conventional full-time sense of the others. Whether Rich Sedmak is the only one, I did not ask. The time constraints of their daily schedule work against regular, as opposed to ad hoc, off campus involvement.
      Dr. Jeremy Sullivan, dean of Students and History Department Chair, told me he knows little of soccer. Dr. Noah Ahmed-Lee, Head, has soccer exposure from her time at Chestnut Hill Academy. Jackie Erixxon, School Administrator, has put her own children through boys and girls Interact Schools, and in addition to being indispensable to everybody is a de facto math tutor, since the boys all know it is better to check with her in advance on homework they don’t understand than wait for her to seek them out with poor paper electronically in hand.
      It’s a real faculty, with soccer Academy characteristics, but a real faculty. Each one would be a candidate for employment at the independent school of your choice in the greater Philadelphia area.

      • Jackie Erixxon’s concern for math illustrates a characteristic of the integrated academic management system. If everything is available electronically to everybody else, it is easy to monitor progress on a daily basis for those charged with such oversight. Blowing something off is not an option.

  3. YSC Academy is accredited by PAIS [Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools]. They are a member of NAIS [substitute “National” for Pennsylvania above.]. They are licensed by the state of Pennsylvania department of Education.

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