Until three years ago, most students at Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts School probably thought of squash as a vegetable. But through the efforts of Chucktown Squash, they now know it also is a sport, one that can lead to other opportunities.

Twenty-six Sanders-Clyde boys and girls are participating in Chucktown Squash on the court, in the classroom and in the community. The teams each come to the College of Charleston two days a week (girls on Mondays and Wednesdays and boys on Tuesdays and Thursdays), where they spend time practicing and training for squash before going to a classroom and being tutored by College of Charleston students.

On Saturdays, both teams practice at Medical University of South Carolina courts and then participate in community service activities.

“Our primary focus is academics. We want them to get their grades up and get into college,” said Sam Candler, executive director of Chucktown Squash. “Squash is the hook.”

Students must express a desire in order to be accepted into the program, but by December, they must have at least an 80 average. Making it to the 95-plus club by the end of the school year qualifies a student for a special trip to Sea Island, Ga., to play squash at the private Cloisters.

Javier Gathers, a seventh-grader at Sanders-Clyde, is in his second year with the program. “I used to play soccer and football. Now it’s all squash,” Gathers said. “I like it better than other sports. You are playing one on one, seeing how good you can be against another person.

“Before (squash), I was kind of a good student, but now I have better grades,” he said.

Squash is an indoor racket sport similar to racquetball although the squash ball doesn’t bounce as much as a racquetball. Candler said it has been stereotyped as an elitist sport played in private clubs. “Our purpose is to take kids who wouldn’t have squash normally available and use that as a catalyst for college. We’re breaking down that barrier,” he said.

Candler’s wife, Lynnie Minkow-ski, a former undefeated national champion, serves as the program director. Lynnie’s sister, Anna, who now lives in Sea Island, Ga., started Chucktown Squash. Candler said the model for Chucktown Squash is to begin with fifth-graders and carry them on through high school and into college.

The game already has opened up new worlds for the players who are traveling to Baltimore soon to compete against urban squash teams from that city and Philadelphia. Recently, they participated in a one-day junior squash marathon at Charleston Squash Club with students from Porter-Gaud, Ashley Hall and The Westminster Schools.

“Our association with the College of Charleston has been great,” Candler said. “... They are learning that college is within reach.”