Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 | 2 a.m.
On the day of Coronado's big rivalry game against Foothill, you might expect to find some Cougars shooting hoops at a last-minute practice after school.
But it's a Wednesday afternoon, and the basketball courts at the Henderson high school are empty. Devoid are the usual tap-tap of basketballs, the squeak-squeak of sneakers and rustling of shiny pom-poms that echo across the gym any other day of the week.
The courts are quiet because Coronado's basketball and cheerleading teams have agreed to trade a little court time for classroom time to mentor children at a nearby elementary school every Wednesday.
"Teenagers are teenagers. They do things begrudgingly," says Jeff Kaufman, Coronado's basketball coach. "But they're committed to this, and they love being role models. They want to do the right thing."
After the last bell rings every Wednesday, three dozen Coronado High School student-athletes gather at Glen Taylor Elementary School. For a little more than an hour, basketball players and cheerleaders — wearing dark blue uniforms — hang out with 56 wide-eyed first- and second-graders.
Together, they read books. They do math homework. They occasionally play hoops.
To a first-time visitor, it's an odd sight. After all, we're talking about nearly 7-foot-tall basketball players interacting with elementary children barely 4 feet tall.
But they make it work, building strong friendships over the course of a season.
"The kids are always so excited when they come," says Laura King, a first-grade teacher at Glen Taylor. "Their eyes just light up. It's very motivating to see them get so excited."
The five-star elementary school may not seem like the kind of campus needing mentors from a five-star high school. That's not true, Glen Taylor Principal Nicole Coloma says.
Since the recession, even a suburban elementary school such as Glen Taylor has dealt with struggles.
Parents are working harder and longer to make ends meet. There are more single parents as well as parents who have to travel for employment.
"We're seeing a lot more parents not at home," Coloma says. "It's really important for these kids to have role models."
Las Vegas has a number of mentoring programs sponsored by nonprofits, community groups and the Clark County School District. Many of these programs pair adults with struggling youths and teens to talk about troubles at home and to find solutions to problems.
But Kaufman wanted to harness the power of sports in bringing together people of different ages and backgrounds. So a couple of years ago, Kaufman started the Coronado Mentoring Program, picking a new Henderson elementary school to help every year.
In part, the program was a way for Kaufman to find young talent for his basketball camp. But soon, Kaufman saw the benefits of the program for his players, as well.
Mentoring young children has helped build a culture of teamwork and school spirit among his players, Kaufman says. Over time, it's become common to see a handful of elementary schoolchildren cheering for Coronado at games.
"It's a way for us to give back to the community," he says. "But there's value in it for our kids, too. It's taught them to be more patient, caring and compassionate."
With just hours before the big matchup against Foothill, the Coronado basketball players looks relaxed as they work with a group of Glen Taylor second-graders. Pregame jitters all but melt away when reading picture books with youngsters, says team captain Charlie Teixeira, 17.
"OK if we all read the last page together?" he asks a group of second-graders, turning to the end of "The Dog and his Shadow."
The kids all nod and begin to read aloud.
"I sure wish a high schooler came and read to us when I was younger," Teixeira says afterward. "It's been great to see all these kids every week. They look up to you a lot."