Tracy Pringle at the M.S. 343 gym.

M.S. 343 alum returns the favor to his old school

At 6 p.m. on a Saturday at M.S. 343 on Brook Avenue, Tracy Pringle was still at work directing after-school activities. A parade of exhausted but cheerful-looking adults trickled out of the gym—Pringle’s gym.

Earlier in the day, kids as young as six or seven had been using the gym, playing basketball, practicing karate, getting help with their homework, or participating in Prime Example, a dance program.

Many were there because it was the only place around that was open for them to go. In an area where many parks close at 8 or 9, and most after-school programs end at 6, Pringle keeps the school gym open until as late as 10 on weeknights, and 5 on Saturdays, though unofficially he often keeps it open later.

Charles Jones, 37, comes to play basketball every Thursday and Saturday, and appreciates Pringle’s efforts to create a place for residents.

“He’s consistent, and he’s open to whoever,” said Jones. “That’s hard to find in New York.”

A tall, broad-shouldered man, Pringle is friendly but intense. Though the participants in his program and staff who work for him say he is kind and generous, he seldom smiles in conversation, preferring to keep the subject serious.

“I know what my community needs,” Pringle said. “I don’t tell them what they want. I ask them what they want.”

Pringle defines “community” broadly. His program is open to all, free of charge, regardless of where they live. Some participants commute from upstate or New Jersey to exercise at M.S. 343.

“He’s great for the community,” said Malloy Nesmith, a man in his 40s who travels from Westchester to play basketball at Pringle’s gym. “He keeps bad guys off the streets. If not for him, a lot of guys would be out doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Pringle’s program is administered by the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development as part of its Beacon Program. The city cut Beacon’s funding by $1.6 million in 2010, and an additional $2.8 million in 2011. The program escaped further cuts this year.

“It hurts,” Pringle said. “But you can’t cut back services even though the budget’s been cut. It’s hard, but we’ve still got to make it happen.”

Pringle grew up on Cypress Avenue in Mott Haven, and still lives in the neighborhood. M.S. 343 was his middle school.

In high school, Pringle excelled at basketball. In 1989, he played for Mabel Dean Beacon Vocational High School—now the School of the Future in Manhattan—when it won the Public School Athletic League championship. In 1991, the school came close to winning it again. A New York Times article that year described Pringle as someone “whose basketball skills have made him into a respected local hero.”

After high school, Pringle attended Daytona Beach Community College in Florida, where he volunteered as a basketball referee and coach for the Special Olympics.

“It was a calling,” Pringle said. “Helping the less fortunate was something that was set there for me to do.”

Pringle quit school to return to Mott Haven for family reasons in 1993. Two years later, he began volunteering at M.S. 343, running the basketball camp and mentoring students through ASPIRA, a national youth organization whose goal is to develop Hispanic leaders. He was soon promoted to recreational specialist, then recreational coordinator, then assistant director before finally being named director in 2004.

Pringle refuses to take credit for keeping young people off the streets of Mott Haven through his program, but he admits that is one of his goals.

“If people appreciate me or appreciate the program, I must be doing something right,” he said.

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