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Story Last modified at 8:35 p.m. on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

School District misses value of middle school sports

Editor's note: The editor has a child who participates in middle school sports.

The Anchorage School Board is currently considering what might be one of its most ill-advised budget reduction ideas of the past decade.


Mirror Lake Middle School skiers Kate Arthen (left) and Ashlee Weller exemplify the camaraderie fostered in school sports after a cross-country ski race on Jan. 20.
PHOTO by Andy Hall

In order to save $250,000, the District has proposed eliminating the interscholastic team sports of cross-country running, volleyball, wrestling, cross-country skiing, and track and field – all sports that offer budding athletes their first taste of real competition – and replace them with what they call "enhanced intramurals."

The enhanced intramural model would still give students a chance to play these sports, but as a school club only, in a half-as-long season and with a season-ending jamboree where all schools would meet up for one daylong competition.

The District proposed this cut, among others, to the Anchorage School Board on Jan. 19 in an attempt to make up an expected $9 million to $12 million shortfall in its $812 million budget.

What both entities failed to recognize throughout the consideration process, though, is the intrinsic value that sports plays in the development of the young mind. They seem to see it as an impediment to learning rather than a very important tool to becoming a productive and motivated adult.

It has become a line item in a budget. The District has aimed its target at the money it will save and the hassle it will avoid in organizing transportation to sporting events.

But there are some things on which you cannot put a price tag.

Middle school is a time when a kid is truly vulnerable. This is when they begin to define who they are as a young adult. The choices they make at this juncture in their lives can form the path they will follow as an adult. As parents, we hope, and guide, our kids to make good choices, but at this age, their peers begin to assert a stronger influence. Being part of something – a team or entity bigger than themselves – can help these children become responsible young adults.

"The middle school years are a cross road for kids," writes Mirror Lake Middle School teacher and coach Mitch Tarter in a Web site he set up to urge people to speak out on the issue ( Without sports, he writes, "Many (kids) will take a different direction than they have in the past. It's hard to fathom the number of kids I've considered at risk of making bad choices in life turn things around by becoming a part of competitive athletics."

Leslie Vandergaw, the district's executive director of middle schools, proposed the cuts to the School Board, after apparently coming to agreement with the middle school principals and assistant principals. Despite the need to make painful cuts, it's alarming that these administrators would not appreciate the value interscholastic sports offers to the very kids they are surrounded by day in, day out.

As Vandergaw said at the Jan. 19 meeting, "One of the primary reasons that this recommendation is being made is (that) over the last couple of years we have found our money is not keeping up with the number of students who want to participate in athletics."

So the solution is to gut the program? Every educator and child advocate out there will talk about the importance of child health – child obesity is on the rise and the so-called "nature deficit disorder," in which children aren't getting enough outside time, is growing every year.

So why, when sports are so popular, would it make sense to cut them?

Vandergaw and superintendent Carol Comeau both talked about the impact sports have on students who are pulled out of classes early to attend meets and races. In reality, students are pulled out of just one or two classes three times in a six-week session, except for wrestling (four days, due to the length of meets) and skiing (six days due to the shortness of the days). At some point, whether we like it or not, our kids will grow up. Why not teach them now to juggle these responsibilities? They will be leaving school early in high school and college for sports, too, so it is no different.

Vandergaw said the enhanced intramural basketball program, which began last year after the interscholastic model was eliminated due to budget cuts many years ago, is a raving success.

"We are feeding kids into high school with enhanced skills," she told the Board.

High school coaches would beg to differ.

Terra Bingham, head coach of the girls basketball team at Eagle River High, said she struggles to even field a full team, and the girls who come to her often don't have the basic skills, such as dribbling and passing, that are usually mastered by players much younger.

"I was talking to one of my basketball girls the other night and she was telling me about when she did the enhanced intramural basketball program that it was not a big deal because it was 'practice for three weeks, and then we went to a jamboree, and it was done,' " Bingham said. "Our problem, especially with girls, is that if they are self confident, they will play, but when they don't feel like they are equipped to play or know how, and they get to the high school level, they don't think they are good enough so they don't come out."

The enhanced intramural program would be a valid compromise of competitive sports, Vandergaw also told the Board members during her 12-minute presentation. Students would learn skills in their compressed, three-week seasons and be able to compete once, at the end of the session, with a daylong jamboree held on a Saturday, outside of school hours. Parents could attend – they'd have to because they'd be in charge of transportation – and the students would get a taste of competition.

Hardly so, said Jerry Sather, who also coaches at Mirror Lake and juggled 170 players among numerous teams. With the enhanced program, the school district would lose qualified coaches who are drawn to the sports programs to help children develop skills. One competition does not give kids time to pefect those skills nor more chances to improve, or challenge themselves.

"It will change the school climate, where now we can have school pride in our programs," Sather said. "Our volleyball players are placed on teams – some are not happy with their team but know that they are Coyotes and will play hard because of that. If we do the same thing in an intramural way and they only play within the school, it is no longer Coyotes against Colts. It is me against you."

The competition, Tarter argues, is not just about winning. It teaches students discipline, perseverance, and self-confidence. It teaches them to follow rules, work together and maintain self control.

"Our school is a community, and eliminating competitive athletics would greatly diminish the effectiveness of our educational capabilities. In order for our students to glean the most from their time here, they need to pridefully participate in their community" – whether it is through academics, arts or sports, he said.

"Together they form an alliance for our students providing the feeling they belong to something great ... something more illustrious than themselves. Imagine our school without the wonderful fine arts program we have. That would bring on a void difficult to imagine. The same will be the case without a competitive sports program."

Tarter couldn't have said it better. Sports are not just about the games. Like art, music, debate or drama, competitive sports is an outlet that allows children to find their places in this world, to create an environment in which they can thrive. Our schools would not be the same without any of these programs, and cutting any of them to the extent the Board is considering would suck the life out of a vibrant way in which our children learn to interact with one another.

It's clear the District has struggled with its cuts, and if money were not an issue this discussion would not be happening. The bottom line, though, is that if middle school interscholastic sports go away, we all lose.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 26, 2011.