John Sorocco’s students are constantly running away from him. And that’s just the way he likes it.
Sorocco, the technology teacher at IS 223 in Borough Park, Brooklyn, got his start as a runner on the track team at Brooklyn Technical HS more than 40 years ago. Now, Sorocco’s running team, the Montauk Red Tide, is the pride and joy of IS 223. And the 38 students who join Sorocco every Wednesday and Friday after school for laps around the building, hill training on the sloped floors of the auditorium and situps in the hallways have found themselves going faster and farther than they ever imagined.
“I feel so happy when I run,” says Azizjon, an 8th-grader. “It gives me power every single time.”
Sorocco’s team, which he launched in 2009, is open to everyone. It attracts new members each year as students seek out both the athletic challenge and the camaraderie.
“It’s become more than just a running team,” Sorocco says. “It’s important at this age to develop friendships, and I like to see them begin to enjoy each other’s company.”
That esprit de corps is apparent on a recent Wednesday afternoon as the team gathers for an after-school workout. Wearing the team’s red shirts or the blue shirts of the New York Road Runners’ Young Runners — the nonprofit organization that brings free running programs to city schools — they chat loudly among themselves in English and Chinese.
They line up in front of the school to watch Sorocco demonstrate a swinging leg stretch — “Up, back, like you’re dancing!” Sorocco instructs. The students try the move, sometimes holding onto each other for balance but with none of the physical awkwardness one might associate with middle schoolers.
After stretching, Sorocco divides them into small groups for a warmup mile — two and a half times around the school. His philosophy: Put one speedy runner with a group of slower runners. “Only go as fast as the slowest pace,” he reminds the students.
Then it’s onto drills in the auditorium, where they run up and down the aisles while loud music thumps from the speakers.
“After school we would normally just go home and do homework,” says Mandy, a 7th-grader. “It feels refreshing to be out here running.”
Sorocco doesn’t merely coach from the sidelines. When three members of the running team participated in a 10-mile relay race in Prospect Park, Sorocco ran alongside each athlete for the entire distance.
“Some of the students are competitive and run great times,” Sorocco notes. “Others are average runners. But when we get on the bus to return from a race, there are no regrets. If they know they ran a good race, everyone’s happy and content.”
Being part of the running team has helped open up a world beyond Brooklyn for Sorocco’s students.
“Some of them, when I brought them to Central Park for a race, had never been to Central Park before,” Sorocco says. “Some of their parents work 14 hours a day. This is a great opportunity for them to get out and see all of the city.”
Teachers at IS 223 say they have seen improvements in attendance and academic performance among the runners.
“After they join the team, not only do they want to be athletes, but they want to be smarter, too,” says physical education teacher Joe Ojeda. “It builds their self-esteem and confidence.”
“The sport disciplines you,” says Sorocco, noting that runners become accustomed to getting up early in the morning for races.
Arno Zheng, an 8th-grader on the team, was recently named New York Road Runners’ Young Runner of the Year for his commitment and his running performance. Rachel Pratt from New York Road Runners says the honor is a testament to Sorocco’s dedication.
“It’s inspirational to see him out running with the team,” Pratt says. “They’re his kids.”