AJ Kohn has been running The Skateboard Academy of Philadelphia for a few years now. As usual, I’ve been carefully watching what he’s up to from afar. I make a habit of watching AJ quite carefully at all times. Surely, you’re asking yourself “why” right about now. Here’s why: because he’s always right on the cutting edge of what skateboarding needs, and needs today, to grow and to move forward in a positive manner. That’s the sort of far-forward-thinking that I wish the rest of the industry would take up from time to time. But for AJ, that’s an everyday mission. As AJ has carefully polished and perfected his newest project, I felt like the time had finally come to introduce it to the world at large. World, meet AJ Kohn, forward thinker par excellence. Mr. Kohn, please take a few moments out of your busy day to tell us all about what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it: The Pied Pipers of Skateboarding The idea to have a “skateboard academy” stemmed from running multiple contest series, skating, and demoing at Love Park and throughout the United States in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Everywhere I went, kids wanted to learn how to skate. And I was one of the only people who was willing to teach them. These weren’t isolated incidents in my neighborhood, city, or state; they literally happened everywhere as I traveled the nation with the United Skateboard Association (the Beast of the East/Grom Series tours). A good friend of mine, Rodney Watkins, was also experiencing the same phenomenon everywhere he went, so its true beginnings were out on the streets and in the neighborhoods that we visited and skated. We started moving towards the concept of The Skateboard Academy as an organized venture in 2006, when I organized a skateboard club called “Gear for GROMS” at Southward Community Center in South Philadelphia. That is where the idea really started to become more flushed out, and became a viable reality. Here’s our instructor, Mr. Kohn, with a classic casper. Mark Cline photo. Humble Beginnings At first, our space was a wooden half-basketball-court sized “multipurpose room”; we were granted the use of that tiny space 1 day a week, for 2 hours per day.
The center was looking for something innovative to engage the youth in more physical activity, and The Skateboard Academy was on the schedule on a week-to-week basis to prove the concept. Once they saw the level of interest and how the kids responded to us, we were given a schedule of 10 kids per 10 weeks, and we provided this service- free of charge, for 6 years straight- at this location. While at this location, we (myself and other volunteers) attracted the attention of several non-profits that started to see and understand the concept of what we were doing, and helped us not only acquire new locations, but also the basic funding from which to run our programs. Initially, all of our “seed capital” was straight out of our pockets; our contacts in the industry helped us make it into a reality. One of the groms, Shamsaddin Saalam, blunt to fakie. AJ’s raisin’ ’em right. Mark Cline photo. The Ball Starts Rolling
As time rolled on, we started getting small write-ups in local neighborhood newspapers, and ultimately we got the attention of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department. The non-profits we worked with took us as far as they could, so when Parks and Recreation approached us to do a 4 stop contest series called “The Philly Cup Series” in 2012, we jumped at the opportunity (and the challenge) of meeting (and exceeding) their expectations. We kept the contests tightly run, professional, and family oriented, offering four divisions (12 and under, 13-15, 16-18, and Open) to see what level of talent existed, and where there were gaps and potential outreach opportunities to under-served skaters. Parks and Recreation was very community- and family-focused, so they wanted to keep it as accessible to everyone to participate as possible, while also serving as a vehicle for the kids to get a healthy lunch and adequate hydration throughout the day. This approach really brought the people in the neighborhoods out to support the youth, and the development of free, public skateparks in those areas. It’s been 5 years since we started the contest series. Nowadays, we visit 5 neighborhoods per season, rotating through different neighborhoods each year. As the contest series has grown, developed, and matured, we’ve also added 8-and-under, and over-40 divisions. Arjun Shah, stacked-obstacle vertical bean plant. Mark Cline photo. “One location in particular, Rizzo Rink, had a day camp of 120+ kids… and by the end of the summer, everyone in the camp had tried skateboarding at least once. And each day I was there, I had a group of about 90 (or so) kids that would regularly participate. The response was that intense…!” Good News, Bad News It was the success of the contest series that proved to the Parks and Recreation Department that this was something that would be beneficial to the neighborhoods. In 2013, the city hired me to run the first official Philadelphia skateboard summer camp programming which was made up of only 4 willing locations to host skateboarding camps/clinics. I would do a demonstration for the entire day camp, and then ask the spectators how many of them wanted to learn how to skateboard. At the time, I traveled with 12 complete skateboards and 12 helmets in one of those fold-out shopping carts. However, once on site, I was finding that I had to frequently split the kids into groups or sessions to accommodate all of the demand. One location in particular, Rizzo Rink, had a day camp of 120+ kids… and by the end of the summer, everyone in the camp had tried skateboarding at least once. And each day I was there, I had a group of about 90 (or so) kids that would regularly participate. The response was that intense…! The following year, I received a call from the head of programming for the city of Philadelphia. She started the conversation by stating, rather abruptly, “I have good news, and some bad news”. I immediately felt a pit in my stomach developing, and was hoping and praying that it wasn’t over. I did all that I could, I could see the potential, and I was horrified that it might all come crashing to a screeching halt. “The good news is that we want you back for another year!” That was great! But then, I waited… “The bad news is that we have over 50 recreation centers who want your programming!” This was the best case scenario that I could have ever imagined! But then the question became, how in the world would we be able to facilitate that amount of demand? It ended up being surprisingly easy to accomplish. The city hires close to 1,000 youth workers a season to help with everything from working at pools, to maintaining park trails. So, to help alleviate my manpower problem, they added skateboarding to the official roster of summer offerings. What that meant, was that we were able to actually hire 6 youth workers (and 1 other adult worker) who would teach and develop our skateboarding programs at 40 centers citywide, and be sanctioned seasonal city employees. Additionally, the city had a budget for equipment. With that funding at our disposal, we were able to purchase 25 complete decks and helmets for the program in our first year. I provided all of the obstacles; I had previously built a basic, portable skate park for demos, as well as for my former “Gear for GROMS” programs that could transported, set up, and skated almost anywhere. AJ cares about the kids. Imagine what this industry could accomplish if we got behind these sorts of programs all across America…? Shamsaddin Saalam, acid drop. Mark Cline photo. Growing Into an Indoor Facility Each year, we continue to grow and tweak our offerings to make them better, to offer more options, to serve a wider audience, and to facilitate growth. In the summer of 2016, the city allowed us to hire 2 more adult head councilors and up to 8 youth workers, so that we could offer 2 full weeks of skateboard camps in addition to our rotating roster of 40 clinic sites, which is now made up of over 75 locations citywide. The addition, the skateboard summer camps brought students from all over the city to a centralized location to learn, make new friends, and have fun through skateboarding. Our limit was 50 students per week, and we were totally booked with waiting lists for both weeks within hours of making the announcement. Needless to say, we had to increase the amount of on-hand equipment to 50 completes and helmets to accommodate everyone, just in case they didn’t have their own equipment. The city also invested in its own portable and modular ramps; with the help of a handful of locals, Ramp Tech, and a few grants, we were able to purchase an additional system to facilitate the growing student base.
As soon as the camps were over, parents started asking for a safe place to bring their kids to continue learning the new skills they learned, and to utilize all that new equipment that they were suddenly buying at their local skate shops. At the time, I was working on my building my own events space with some friends and a modular training facility that I would teach private lessons at from time to time. We had 6 students at first who were really into it, so we started doing weekend lesson/sessions. As word spread, it grew pretty quickly; we now have between 12 to 20 students per lesson session as we offer two, 3- hour lesson session times each day. Additionally, we also run endemic and non- endemic workshops/events, skateboard birthday parties, et cetera. We recently added a healthy snack bar, and we’re currently building an in- house skate shop that only brings in brands that support what we do in the city with our camps, the Philly Cup Series, and other community engagement. Arjun Shah, nosepick. Mark Cline photo. The Results So Far: At this time, we are serving over 2,000 youth each year in the city of Philadelphia in the summer alone. Many of them are new skateboarders!
We are running skateboard summer camp programming for the city of Philadelphia, Roslyn PA, and at a sleep-away camp in Maryland, as well as clinics for the Girl Scouts of PA this season. We are able to hire a dozen seasonal workers in the city, including many youth workers who we also train in civic duty and trade skills such as basic carpentry, masonry, design, and painting to help us keep up and improve our area skate facilities citywide. We also hired 4 additional head instructors for our other camps outside of the city. This year is also the pilot year for our first-ever traveling summer camp that is based out of our indoor facility, which travels the local metro area. This coming school year, we are making a return to after-school skateboard programming with backing from parks and recreation to hire and train workers to manage the programs and building/storage of our 5 additional modular portable park systems. In the fall into the beginning of winter we will be running our popular Thrashing Thursday night community lesson / sessions and Ladies Nights that bring girls and women of all ages out to skateboard, roller skate and hula hoop the night away in a safe and supportive environment. The Reason: The reason why Rodney and I started doing this… and continue to do this… is that there was a void in educational, family-oriented skateboard programming for the youth and adults. What this ultimately facilitates is the growth of everything that is in or around skateboarding, and those who participate. I see so many fruitless debates of “what skateboarding is”: some say it’s art, others say it’s a lifestyle or a sport… but the ultimate truth is that it is all of the above! It is a way to bring to bring individuals of all creeds, colors, economics etc., and people of different communities together to strive for something more. And it all comes down to what you do, and bring to the table as an individual. We’re fostering the free exchange of ideas, and common understanding through a piece of wood and four urethane wheels. This is why we do it. For the love of community, and for the love of skateboarding. You can see what AJ’s up to on the world wide web at theskateboardacademy.com. If you (or your brand) would like to make a contribution toward helping this noble cause, AJ Kohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.