The tears in Jackie’s eyes were present because the social worker had just told her that she was being placed in another foster home. Her mom’s visit and the behavior it elicited were just too much for her last set of foster parents. But that was Jackie’s life’s story – three sets of foster parents during the past three years. If it wasn’t for her love of running and her high school teammates, she would be lost.
With test scores, budget concerns, special education, lack of qualified teachers and school safety, administrators have a full plate that demands their attention. Why should school leaders care about the multi-sport athlete? Because for a student like Jackie, year-round athletics provides the stability that she couldn’t find anywhere else – and it gave her purpose.
It’s not hard to like Jermaine. He always had a smile on his face and was genuinely happy to see you. His stepfather, a school custodian, felt he just played too much and was not serious about anything.
But Jermaine is intensely devoted to basketball, and he wants to go to Georgetown University and eventually play in the NBA. The fact that he stands 5 feet, 8 inches tall and has struggled with his grades has not diminished his dream and goal.
Jermaine doesn’t like causing problems, but he does admit to hanging around the wrong people. It is basketball and other sports that keep him motivated to stay in school. But even though he is a good basketball player, Jermaine’s size has presented a challenge for his ambitions. As a senior, there was not any interest from colleges and universities. His stepfather was pragmatic, and he worried that without an offer, Jermaine would give up and quit school.
These students demonstrate not only the importance of high school athletics, but its hidden value by keeping students connected and in school. Many students are potentially at-risk, and the problems and issues that a dropout may experience are not unique. These same issues are being experienced by an increasingly large number of other students – the gifted, average and students with special needs have voiced the same litany of complaints as those students who have dropped out.
Some of those frequent complaints are “school is boring,” “my teachers and parents don’t care,” “no one understands me” and “I don’t want to be here.”
The key to connect with these students is athletics and activities, which provide a safe place throughout the year and a means for providing support, guidance and direction. When the season ends, however, administrators cannot allow these student-athletes to drift away. They need to become involved in another sport or activity.
At Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Delaware, the high school principal began compiling data regarding academics and discipline for her student-athletes. While this is an ongoing study, the data was not surprising:
Conversely, the average GPA for the class of 2018 was 2.75. This data is certainly valuable; however, the voices of the school administrators can be equally enlightening:
From the Principal of a Vocational School:
“As an educator, I preach to my “kids” to “belong” to a school and not just “attend” it. I believe that all activities are an extension of the school day and, therefore, they are “co-curricular.” Almost every student who participated in multiple activities over the past 28 years has improved academically.
“One of many success stories was a student who was challenged in the classroom but worked hard. He played both football and baseball and received a football scholarship. After college he became a high school English teacher and assistant football coach. Currently, he is an athletic director and head football coach. What a huge success story!"
From a Principal of a Charter School:
“As a parent who also is a principal, my son earned eight letters in a total of four sports. He ran cross country, was second team allstate in soccer and wrestling his senior year, and baseball was his fourth sport.
“Athletics fostered a willingness to learn in my son and contributed to his growth. Being a multi-sport athlete, he embraced the challenges and persisted in the face of setbacks. He learned to give his complete effort in an attempt to master the skills.
“Later, while training to become a Marine, he earned the Iron Man Award at Parris Island for a near perfect score on his physical fitness and combat fitness tests. The perseverance, leadership experience and confidence that he gained on the field and the mat have propelled his success following high school.”
From the Principal of a Traditional High School:
“There were several instances where multiple sport student- athletes, who also participated in other activities, have flourished individually and added value to our school community. It is vital to get young people involved. In speaking with our school counselors, the most successful students applying to college and for scholarships are the ones that are involved in athletics, band, theater and school clubs.
“In one particular case, a student was a multi-sport athlete and was also heavily involved in our theatre program. After his graduation, he and his parents cited these involvements as a major factor which contributed to his development as a well-rounded person."
It is imperative that administrators appreciate the contribution that our athletic and activities programs play in making our schools whole. In order to continually expand the educational tool box, one should encourage multi-sport participation as one of the best ways of keeping students engaged and meeting the needs of the whole child.
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald is superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware and a member of the NFHS Board of Directors. Fitzgerald is the NASS 2018 National Superintendent of the Year.