A unique and growing program at Beethoven Elementary builds community without the hard knocks

Story by Kellie Chudzinski | Photos by Luis Chavez

Every Thursday after classes, dozens of students at Beethoven Street Elementary School in Mar Vista rush to the back field to play a sport many Americans know little about: rugby.

The only program of its kind in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Beethoven Bears rugby fields different teams according to age group — from kindergarten through fifth grade, both boys and girls.

If the thought of little kids mixing it up in an unfamiliar and intensely physical contact sport may be cringe-worthy for parents nervous about injuries from American football, rest assured that’s not happening at Beethoven.

While traditional rugby is a contact sport played without helmets and pads, many contend it’s safer than its American cousin. Rugby-style tackling — leading with the shoulders instead of the head, hitting at a lower target point and wrapping up around the legs — is promoted by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll (formerly head coach of the USC Trojans) and many others as a way to increase player safety, though it’s fair to acknowledge that concussions are a common risk in both sports.

To make the game as safe as possible, Beethoven student athletes play a modified, no contact version of the sport often called “flag rugby.” The team on offense typically loses possession on a fumble, by running out of bounds or making another “mistake.” And when a member of the defense pulls a ball carrier’s flag, the carrier has the opportunity to pass the ball to a teammate. The rules intentionally put the focus of the game less on feats of athletic prowess than on cooperation with teammates.

Elementary-age boys and girls learn the fundamentals of team play during an after-school rugby practice at Beethoven Street Elementary, the only LAUSD campus to offer a rugby program

“We’re trying to offer the children rugby not as a proposition for physical fitness, but more a proposition to teach life and to teach the idea of sportsmanship — the idea of fair play, and that your opponent today can be your teammate tomorrow,” said Beethoven rugby head coach and founding parent Patrick Guthrie.

A longtime player who works for The Rugby Channel and directs USA Rugby broadcasts, Guthrie founded the after-school program in 2014 when his twin sons Royal and Vaughn were in transitional kindergarten.

“The idea was to provide an activity in after-school enrichment program,” he said, “that would allow the kids to run around and express themselves, have fun.”

Guthrie now coaches about 40 players. And as his boys prepare to finish fifth grade and enter nearby Mark Twain Middle School, Guthrie plans to keep Beethoven’s program up and running while hoping to expand by offering a program at Mark Twain.

“It’s definitely very welcoming and an open environment for the kids to come out and just get out all that energy,” said Beethoven co-coach Hannah Hartman, herself a rugby player, who has been with the program for two years.

“These kids are scary good at rugby. They’re really, really talented,” she said. “I think it also works well for the kids because rugby is a sport that’s built on community.”

About a quarter of Beethoven Rugby players are girls, which for Hartman is a special source of pride.

“I love all these kids, don’t get me wrong,” she said, “but being able to help these girls through fourth and fifth grade, which is a hard time to be a girl … kind of help them navigate what it is to be out here, it’s cool.”

Fourth-grade rugby player Ava put it this way: “I love that Coach Patrick includes girls in rugby and encourages us to not only be our very best at rugby but in all we do.”

The program also takes strides to remain accessible in terms of cost.

The program’s first year, in which 25 students participated, came with a price tag of $100 per student, similar to other after-school activities at Beethoven.

Noticing that for many families $100 was enough to keep interested kids away from the game, he found alternative funding. Since 2015, Guthrie’s employer GlobalSport Communication Inc. — which produces, packages and delivers rugby content for outlets — has funded the program entirely. Guthrie estimates their total commitment over the past five years at about $12,500.

Now, students can purchase a jersey for $25 but do not need one to participate. Even with the cost of a jersey, rugby is still the most affordable after school program at Beethoven, with sports- and classroom-based activities tending to cost $100 to $170 per student.

The sense of community around rugby was especially evident in late February, when the England National Sevens rugby team visited Beethoven days before taking part in the World Sevens Rugby Tournament, held in Carson. While kids in the rugby program had the chance to directly interact with the pro-team and hit the field with them, the entire school came out to watch.

“The school has taken the rugby game as something that is valuable to them — something that they own and are proud to be involved,” Guthrie observed.

Students lined the field waving England’s white and red cross flag, chanting “Go, England, Go!” and cheering on those playing on the field. The English players appeared just as amazed at the support and enthusiasm.

During the visit, England Sevens captain Tom Mitchell said: “Patrick is doing an amazing job here, and we see that the kids are super excited. It’s nice to chat to kids who want to play rugby.”

Mitchell later told Guthrie that of all school visits the team had made over the years, Beethoven’s was “the best visit they ever had.”

More than a week later, Guthrie remained in awe of such schoolwide support.

“So much excitement and just the energy around the activity!” he gushed. “I’m still blown away at what we saw
on that day.”

Matthew, a third-grader who’s been in the program for three years, plans on playing for the next two and hopes to continue at Mark Twain, his mother Suzanna said during a recent practice.

“He’s been learning a lot,” she said. “He’s really independent and he loves to play.”

That’s the kind of thing Guthrie really likes to hear. He’s grateful for the chance former Beethoven Principal Althea Ford (now at Mark Twain) gave him to start the program and the ongoing support of current Beethoven Principal Cara Fields, but in the end it’s all about the kids.

“I’m most proud of the differences I’ve seen in the players I’ve worked with for the last five years,” Guthrie said. “My satisfaction is to see these young people develop. I’m just delighted with the changes I’ve seen in the kids.”