Dawn Ladson used to play basketball. Then she heard about the college scholarships available for girls who row. Now she can’t wait to get out on the water.

“Anybody can play basketball,” she says. “I row to make my mark as an individual.”

The 16-year-old from Queens is part of Row New York, a nonprofit sports program started last year as a step toward bolstering public school sports in New York. “Sports are not a special treat,” says program founder Amanda Kraus, herself a rower. “All kids should have the opportunity to participate.”

But in New York, many don’t. According to New Visions for Public Schools, due to budgetary constraints, only 10 percent of the city’s public school students participate in after-school sports at their schools.

Emphasizing the value in physical activity and team camaraderie, Kraus says she saw the benefits at work during her time with a similar group called GROW Boston in Massachusetts.

After spending the 2002 season teaching eight girls from Queens the basics of the sport–“It was just about seeing if the boat would float,” says Kraus–she is now readying her team of 13- to 18-year-old girls for its first competitive race.

Working with Flushing High School and YMCAs in Queens, Kraus recruited 15 girls for this year’s team. Thanks to equipment donations and $120,000 from individuals and a handful of foundations, she is able to cover expenses.

This spring, the team will take on its first race, against Beach Channel High School. They’ll face off on Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadow Corona Park, where Olympic rowers will compete if New York City wins its bid to host the Olympics in 2012.

Kraus admits starting a basketball or baseball team is a lot cheaper, but she hopes in the long run her team members will have a leg up when it comes to college applications. Rowing “is the fastest-growing women’s sport in the NCAA,” says Kraus, referring to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. She credits Title IX, the 1972 statute that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, for opening up large numbers of scholarships for women.

“This is huge opportunity for our girls,” she says.

Ladson hopes so. “I am very competitive,” she says, “and want to carry my commitment to the sport even further.”