Friday, January 27, 2012

Cutting sports for science

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal had a story called "Friday Night Lights (Out)." A small school district in Texas, on the verge of bankruptcy and in trouble with the state for low academic performance, has decided to cut its high school sports program to free up cash. Among the things the cash has to go for? A better science lab, as required by state standards.

High school sports are obviously a big deal in Texas (especially football). So the idea of cutting sports to support academics is novel, to say the least. In the case of this little town (Premont, about 150 miles south of San Antonio), the sports teams hadn't exactly been powerhouses. It's not like the town of Allen, near Dallas, which is opening a new $60 million stadium. (One wonders how many science labs in small districts could be created for the price of that monument to those Friday Night Lights). Still, win or lose, as the article notes, high school sports competitions are often the glue that holds a community together.

But, of course, one could come up with many things to hold a community together. Volunteer projects. Variety shows. I read multiple times the scene in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when, as a high school student, she recites a long historical oratory on a night in which the whole town has gathered in the school house. The article quotes someone from the PTA lamenting that education should be about the whole child (including physical fitness). Which is true. But with athletics, I've been pondering, lately, if our high school emphasis on team sports is part of our problem with an out-of-shape populace. To be athletic as a child is to be into team sports. That is the kind of athleticism that is valued. So I figured I was never athletic. But in my 20s, I started running -- an individual sport you can do your whole life, with little equipment. I'm not fast, but I turn out to have a fair bit of endurance. I finished the Big Sur Marathon in April 2010 and was in good enough shape afterwards to deal with an ER trip for my kid the next morning (long story) and to go hiking the next afternoon. I now run 5 days a week, and lift weights most days, something I'm guessing the vast majority of former high school athletes no longer do. If the goal is the whole child, emphasizing sports that the vast majority of people will no longer do after school -- like football -- doesn't seem to be the way to go.

That said, I wish this town didn't have to cut anything. I do wish, though, that all districts would go through the hard process of figuring out whether their budgets match up with what their priorities should be. The top priority should be producing students who can be good citizens and support themselves in the modern economy. Most likely, a good science program is a better bet than a formal sports program. Especially when you can send the kids outside to run for 30 minutes a day instead.


Anonymous said...

I for one applaud that. There are so very, very many sports teams opportunities for kids outside of school: community leagues; travel leagues, "Christian" leagues, local-sports-hero-named leagues, elite leagues...the list goes on and on. Want your child involved in science? If the schools don't provide it, parents are pretty much limited to the week-long "Mad Science" type classes for early elementary school students.

I also agree with you about lifetime fitness. As a kid, I was a gymnast, which was something no school ever wanted to support. As part of my training, I ran...and I learned to love running. I also enjoy yoga and swimming--other activities just about anyone at any age can enjoy, and most schools don't offer.

'Nother Barb said...

This had to have been a devastating decision for Premont. Going against a cultural tradition is hard enough. But some of these kids might be relying on participation in extracurricular sports for their college applications as well as for financial aid. I'm not talking about powerhouse quarterbacks, but kids who might get athletic aid for track, basketball, or volleyball as well as football, to go to even a small college. Competitive sports are about more than fun and fitness, they help kids develop purposeful relationships, set goals, learn time management, and support one another, in an environment that IS more fun than academics. My son isn't in athletics, he is in debate, speech, and theater, which have the same benefits. If our school were to eliminate the extracurricular performing arts program, he would miss out on many life skills, not to mention deep friendships and college direction, as he has decided to major in theater.

I would also point out that, most likely, the Allen school sports facility was built with donations and foundation support, NOT completely from the school budget. Premont doesn't have the wealth in the community to support sports outside of the school budget.

Anonymous said...

Sports are important. Sometimes they are what keeps kids in school, gives them motivation to graduate, motivation to pass, and gives them a common ground in the family and culture.

Academics, it can be argued, are the primary reason for schools. Our school system has few sports, none at the middle school level, and then just the basics at the highschool level. Not powerhouses. We are a high performing district academically. Nearby districts do much better in sports rankings and are much lower academically. Somehow, it seems you should be able to have both academics and sports. Many academically talented kids are also athletically talented.

Anonymous said...

Sports can be important, but school isn't the only place a child can encounter them. From local rec leagues to professional year-round teams, there are endless opportunities out there for kids to play sports outside school, and don't think the sports scouts for colleges aren't attending the professional kids' leagues. I find it hilarious that parents spend tens of thousands of dollars chasing after a minimal dollar amount of aid in college.

lgm said...

Some of us live in rural communities, where it works out more economically to have sports thru the school than thru private organizations. When our district cancelled middle school sports, they brought in a private provider. We went from $235/kid for an 8 week, 2 hrs/day, 5 days/wk season to a rec league of $150 for 6 weeks, 3 days a week, 1 hr per day. No one signed up for the latter. Who can get the time off from work to do the transporation during the week?

And let's note that one bus is much better for parking lots and emissions than each team member being driven.