JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: Thanksgiving is about family and Turkey, yes. But it's also about football, especially high school football, as teams around the country battle archrivals or play in championship games.
Recently, I talked with an unusual high school football coach about success on the field and off.
It's part of our American Graduate project, our series on the high school dropout problem.
Natalie Randolph is a high school science teacher with a finely developed sense of the psychology of teenaged boys.
You have to prove yourself.
NATALIE RANDOLPH, Coolidge High School: No.
JEFFREY BROWN: No?
You have to prove how tough you are?
NATALIE RANDOLPH: No. They have enough fun proving how tough they are with each other.
JEFFREY BROWN: That keeps them busy.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: That keeps them busy long enough.
JEFFREY BROWN: Randolph, 32, is slightly built and has a high-pitched voice, but she is plenty tough.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: All the way up.
STUDENT: It hurts.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: So what? Pain is weakness leaving the body.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tough enough in fact to be head football coach at CoolidgeHigh School in Washington, D.C.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Come on. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. come on.
JEFFREY BROWN: She's believed to be the only woman in the country to hold such a position. And that put her in the media spotlight when she took the job nearly three years ago.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: While I'm proud to be part of what this all means, being female has nothing to do with it. I love football. I love football. I love teaching. I love these kids.
JEFFREY BROWN: And tension only grew last year as Randolph coached her team into the city's championship game, the annual Turkey Bowl played on Thanksgiving.
Randolph grew up in Washington, graduated from the University of Virginia, and played football herself for six years with the D.C. Divas, a professional women's league.
But if she's passionate about football and focused on winning, she's also quite clear about priorities, football as a means towards staying and excelling in school.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Academics come first. And we always -- all of my coaches, we always preach to them, when you get our age, you won't be playing football. So, we like to think we have a lot of life to live, so you will too. And you need to prepare for that.
Football is kind of just icing on the cake.
JEFFREY BROWN: How do you break it down? I'm one of your kids here, right?
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: And I just want to go out and practice. I don't want to go study.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Well, we tell them you have to be a whole person. You have to be smart. You're not going to be very effective on the football field if you're not smart and you're not good at studying, analyzing things.
These colleges, you know, they have hundreds of applicants to choose from, hundreds of players to choose from that are just as big, just as strong, just as fast.
And what's going to set you apart is your character and your academics.
JEFFREY BROWN: Part of being a whole person, she says, graduating from high school. As elsewhere around the country, that's a major problem in the city where Randolph teaches.
The high school graduation rate in Washington, D.C., last year was under 60 percent.
And like public school teachers elsewhere, she sees the realities facing many of her students.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Their responsibilities at home and outside of school, sometimes, that will pull them away. They, you know, figure that it's easier for them to get a job at this point so that they can sustain whatever needs to be sustained. And they don't come back to school.
Or some of them are so far behind, you know, academically, they get frustrated. And it's like, well, why bother?
JEFFREY BROWN: All athletes at Coolidge are required to attend a one hour and 15 minute study hall Monday through Thursday before practice begins.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Who messed you up? Nobody messed you but you. You earned them grades.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Randolph and two other teachers run the session, hitting their students athletes over the head with the football facts of life.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: When the college coaches come here and they ask me what your GPA is, they're not worried about the GPA on here, on your transcript that says cumulative GPA. They're not worried about that. What they're worried about is your GPA of these combined 16 courses.
JEFFREY BROWN: She also mentors her charges in a variety of other ways.
MYLES GINYARD,CoolidgeHigh School: I come to her when I'm having trouble in a class. She talks with me: Don't give up. Keep pushing through it. Like, in life, everything is not going to go your way.
BRYAN FULFORD,CoolidgeHigh School: She all wants us to succeed and like go to college to the next level, even if it's not football-wise. Like, if it's academic-wise, she still wants us to do that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Randolph's success on and off the field has attracted praise from local leaders.
MAYOR VINCENT GRAY, D-Washington: You need to have a full array of opportunities that are going to attract kids. And, certainly, interscholastic athletics like this is one of the best dropout and truancy prevention programs we could possibly have.
TOMMY WELLS, D.C. Council member: She's really shown how to leverage the football team to keep these young men, you know, on the straight path, but also to graduate from high school.
JEFFREY BROWN: One former player, Chuck Gaines, is now at ShawUniversity in North Carolina. He credits Randolph with getting him there.
CHUCK GAINES, former CoolidgeHigh School student: My grades improved from a C average to a B when I was being coached by coach Randolph. Like, she pushed academics had. So, it was school first and then football. The majority of kids nowadays are just focused on sports.
JEFFREY BROWN: For Gaines, who spent much of his childhood moving from one homeless shelter to another, Randolph also taught him important life lessons.
CHUCK GAINES: It's always something I will remember that she always told me that helped me do everything.
If it's not hard, it's not worth it.
When I'm in class and I have got a big paper write, I always go to her and she will always tell me that. She will always tell me that. She goes, if it's not hard, it's not worth it.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: It sounds sappy, but if they know that you love them, they will work. And if they know that you care about what they're going through and understand what they're going through, they will work.
And they make mistakes. They fall. We pick them back up and then show them what they did wrong. They fix it. And they do it again.
And eventually they get it. In the end, they always get it.
JEFFREY BROWN: You used the word sappy. I'm thinking of football, which is violent, tough. On the football field, you have got to show how tough you are.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Oh, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And here you are talking about love. You don't see a disconnect?
NATALIE RANDOLPH: No. I mean, they will go out there and they will run into each other and hit and whatever they need to do. And that's not the hard part about it.
They need to know that they're going to be cared for in order to make that sacrifice. They need to know they're not making that sacrifice for nothing.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, life on the field got harder this year for Randolph and the Coolidge Colts. The good news, more than 20 seniors from last year's team graduated.
The bad news, that left a much younger and less experienced group behind. The team went 3-9 this season and won't be playing in the Turkey Bowl, leaving Natalie Randolph, the teacher, sounding like football coaches everywhere.
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Yes, it sucks to lose. Every coach wants to win. And, yes, I want to win. Some games...
JEFFREY BROWN: But that's the...
NATALIE RANDOLPH: Right. Some games, we could have won, you know?
JEFFREY BROWN: Still, success here is measured in many ways. Coolidge's young players did end their season with a victory.
And, online, we have more from coach Randolph's former student Chuck Gaines. You can read about his journey from being a homeless teen to a college freshman.
American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And she's an inspiration.