The case for divorcing schools and sports

What if sports weren’t a part of the high school experience?

For many, it’s a shocking proposal, and one that wouldn’t get very far in most communities except for under grave financial circumstances. But in a country where students test far behind those in so many other industrialized nations, places where the schools don’t have sports, divorcing academics and athletics is a concept at least worth acknowledging.

The debate is not a new one, but it came up at a recent Richfield School Board meeting as they discussed the merits of adding 20 minutes to the daily schedule at Richfield High School. The extra time was to provide a seventh period that would aid students academically while promoting equity.

No one on the board debated the academic benefits of the change. It meant class at the high school would now be in session for longer than the state daily minimum of 6 hours and 50 minutes. And, the plan pushed the start time back, giving students an extra 20 minutes of highly valuable shut-eye.

The problem was, the change also meant school would get out later, eating into time that used to be reserved for sports. Although the measure to expand the daily schedule would eventually pass without much hand-wringing, its effect on athletics was the sticking point. Boardmember Tom Pollis summed up the concern.

“I like the seven-period day. I love all the benefits that come with it. I just don’t know if I like the 8:30 start time if it has this sort of impact on activities.”

The only affected activities, however, were sports – namely golf, alpine skiing and gymnastics, which rely on facilities outside the district, meaning a later school day could throw a wrench in their practice schedules. The scheduling conflicts were mostly resolved thanks to a spirit of flexibility, so the controversy was minimized.

Still, sometimes it’s important to look at the status quo and its monumental traditions and ask why. Sometimes it helps to explore a topic as an outsider bringing a different set of assumptions. Boardmember Paula Cole, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, provided that perspective as the board discussed the athletic schedule.

“I did not do sports when I went to high school, and this whole thing is very new to me,” Cole said. “I have a lot of questions that are probably not very friendly, (such as) why do you care so much about sports?”

I love sports. They’re a valuable diversion, and I appreciate them like I appreciate many diversions. But why in school? What kind of message does it send when an entire school takes a half day off to watch their team in the playoffs? Or when there’s a substitute teacher because the regular teacher is out at a meet somewhere? The prevailing wisdom says the sacrifice is worth it.

“Sports are actually a very important part of kids growing up and development,” Boardmember Christine Maleck said in response to Cole’s question. “For some kids, it’s almost as important as the academics. It teaches them a lot.”

I agree. Sports provide a venue for a different kind of learning that you can’t replicate in the classroom. They teach a different kind of perseverance than cramming for a math test might. Yes, sports can be critical to learning and development for many adolescents, but since when did learning have to be confined to school-sanctioned activities in the first place? Putting sports and academics in the same building sends a message of priorities, that sports are on the same level as math, reading and science, or at least close. Students may value sports even more once you factor in a social hierarchy where the athletes are on top.

Schools take great pains to minimize distractions, but they have a big one built into the school day. Could students still get the same benefits of athletics if their sports were not affiliated with their school, while a glaring distraction is removed from the instructional day?

Cities already run extensive parks and recreation programs. Why can’t they organize the sports that are currently the domain of the schools? Perhaps the financial resources could simply be shifted, not that it would be an easy transition. Would the Edina High School hockey teams be any less a source of pride if they were representing the city of Edina, and not just the high school? How about Eden Prairie High School’s vaunted football program?

The community-building potential of sports is inherently limited when they are affiliated with a particular school and not the community as a whole, since there are many residents with no direct connection to the school district. Putting sports under an umbrella outside the school system also provides the advantage of bringing kids together that might otherwise rarely cross paths, even though they might live in the same neighborhood.

Take Richfield, which has two major high schools, Richfield High School and the Academy of Holy Angels. If those schools were just schools, and sports were run by a separate entity, there would be greater opportunity for athletes to intermingle and be exposed to different kids and different backgrounds. That’s called expanding horizons, which is what this whole education thing is supposed to be about.

There are practical considerations that may throw a wrench into this thought exercise. The biggest one may be convenience. You’ve got a bunch of kids in one place already, so might as well form a team. And that makes sense, but not if it comes at the cost of academics.

The bigger obstacle to seriously exploring a divorce between sports and school is probably tradition. Tradition can be great, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of innovation.

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.