PRACTICING LAYUPS IN the Cleveland High School gym in Beacon Hill, Jason Goree, 17, isn’t all smiles. His friends, unable to produce the necessary $125, are barred from the court. Same goes for hundreds of other public school students around the region. Battered by $1.9 billion in cuts to K–12 education since 2009, educators across Washington increasingly say they have no choice but to foist the cost of athletics onto families, or cut sports programs altogether. For some families those fees—from $50 in the Highline school district to $275 in Lake Washington—are deal breakers.

At Cleveland, for example, more than 76 percent of students are needy enough to qualify for federal aid, but to play in Seattle, each eligible student must pay $100 per sport, plus $25 for a mandatory student activities card. Tack on $32 for health insurance (available through the district and required if the student isn’t covered by an equal or better plan) and it’s not surprising that coaches struggle to get enough bodies on the field. It’s worse in suburban districts; a family with two athletically inclined children in Redmond could pay $1,000 in fees before the kids even suit up.

Price breaks are available to those who qualify. But Will Niccolls, a longtime soccer referee in the state, found the entire situation untenable. He cringed when kids playing a team in an affluent district showed up dragging their equipment in black garbage bags. To address the inequity, Niccolls, who lives in West Seattle, founded Sports in Schools in 2009. The nonprofit will cover anything from participation fees to new equipment to bus passes—even, recently, reconstructive surgery for a boy without dental insurance whose tooth was knocked out on the Evergreen high school basketball court.

“Booster clubs tend to advance certain teams or individual schools,” Niccolls says. “But sports need to come together as a community. Opportunities are being taken away from kids who can’t afford it, and there’s nobody who’s reacting.”