It's Quarter to eight on a sunny Tuesday morning at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club in Clearwater, Fla. Old men are putting and chatting on the practice green. Maintenance carts are zipping around. A gaggle of goiters gathers next to a long line of carts at the first tee.
Meanwhile, on a patch of grass in front of the pro shop, 36 fifth-graders and four adults stand ramrod-straight at attention around a flagpole. They observe a moment of silence. A boy and a girl raise the U.S. flag, and everybody repeats the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the group marches single-file toward a one-story stucco building about 100 feet away that houses two classrooms and the Nicklaus Family Center, a large, multipurpose room.
"Those are the luckiest kids in the world," says Ben Davis, 71, while taking a few practice strokes on the putting green. "Imagine, going to school on a golf course."
The school on a golf course is the Modesta Robbins Partnership School, a one-grade, privately funded public school for what educators call "discouraged learners." As Uncle Sam slashes the public education budget, privately funded public schools are becoming an increasingly viable alternative. In Florida's Pinellas County, which includes Clearwater, there are six such partnership schools.
Modesta Robbins exists because the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation pays the costs of construction, maintenance, administration, classroom materials and the salaries of two assistants. The Pinellas County Board of Education supplies two teachers and a principal. The board and the foundation select the students from a pool of kids who have had serious problems in regular schools.
What makes Modesta Robbins unique is its golf-based curriculum. Students shadow the golf club's staff in the pro shop, snack bar and business office. To study flora and fauna in science class, students sometimes don wetsuits and wade into the course's swamps and lakes. Classes have used Babe Zaharias's autobiography, This Life I've Led, as a textbook, and issues of Golf Digest and Senior Golfer constitute reading units. Posters in which Snoopy illustrates golf etiquette adorn bathroom doors. And, of course, everybody can play golf daily.
"All schools should be like ours," says John Hauser, an honor-roll student. "They give us work that makes us learn, and we get to play golf every day. I love coming to school."
I love coming to school This from a boy who last year, in the fourth grade at one of Clearwater's regular public schools, had grades so poor that his mother thought he was a lost cause. "I was in tears all year, " says Cathy Hauser. "He was a lump and a compulsive liar. I thought I'd lost him. But this school has saved his life."
Saving lives was the intent of the school's founder, Bill Hayes, 47. He grew up in Helensburgh, Scotland, where his father had been transferred by a U.S. manufacturing company. Hayes took up golf at the age of eight, playing mostly at the renowned Gleneagles golf resort. When he was 13, however, Hayes was sexually assaulted and dumped into a well by a pack of teenage boys. He was rescued by passersby who heard his cries for help.
"The attack scared me to death," says Hayes, "but it also made me wonder how I could change the world."