School extracurricular activities on the chopping block

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School districts throughout Minnesota will have to cut their budgets this spring no matter what happens with the state’s revenue shortfall or the President’s economic recovery plan. As district leaders eye potential cuts, they inevitably look toward extracurricular activities as a place where they can cut their budgets but leave core subjects intact.

They’re not doing students any favors. Scores of studies show that students who participate in extracurricular activities perform better in school than those who do not. If Minnesota’s goal is to produce students who are best equipped to participate in a 21st Century workforce, then every advantage must be given to them.

It is disingenuous of our state leaders to say they support education, yet don’t provide enough funding for schools to offer programs such as extracurriculars that enhance education. The benefits are enormous.

For example, a survey of 300 Minnesota high schools by the Minnesota State High School League showed the average GPA of a student-athlete was 2.84, compared with 2.68 for the average student. Student-athletes missed an average of only 7.4 days of school each year, compared with 8.8 for the average student.1

According the College Entrance Examination Board, music students scored about 11 percent higher than non-music students on the SAT. Students in music performance scored 57 points higher in the verbal area and 41 points higher in math, and students in music appreciation scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math.2

Participation in extracurricular activities is also one of the few interventions that benefit low-status, disadvantaged students as much or more than their more advantaged peers, one study showed.3

A study of 200 sixth-graders found that those who skateboarded or played organized soccer or football at least three times a week had grades 10 percent higher in math, science, English and social studies.4

Results from a study conducted by Boston University shows that of 1,115 Massachusetts high school students, athletes were significantly less likely to use cocaine and psychedelics, and less likely to smoke cigarettes.5

But some benefits of extracurricular activities are less apparent. David Johnson, Nordic ski coach at Marshall School in Duluth, said activities help students develop self-discipline and self-respect.

“I was walking past the buses the other day and a coach was talking to this girl, you could tell she doesn’t get much praise. The coach had his hand on her shoulder and was praising her and the good job she just did. And then yesterday, I was over by the softball fields and every other word from the coach was positive and affirming yet teaching and correcting at the same time.”

He spoke of his daughter who set her sights on making it to the state Nordic ski tournament. Starting last summer, she would get up early, bike down the hill to Duluth’s harbor, row for two hours, bike back up the hill, change clothes, bike to a friend’s house, work out, bike home, then go to work by noon. She did this throughout the summer and modified the regimen after school started.

This winter, she achieved her goal.

“She worked incredibly hard and discovered what she can accomplish with hard work, dedication and focus. There’s tons of data out there about the benefits of school sports, but there are tons of parents out there who will tell you stories like mine,” Johnson said.

Last year, the Crosby-Ironton school district opted to cancel all school activities when faced with budget problems. Concerned parents raised the money for one year’s worth of activities, and they are now waiting to see how the budget will shape up for this year.

Cutting athletics is an option many school districts are considering. Johnson, however, warns against developing a sports program modeled on the European club organization rather than the American high school organization.

“We’ve hosted students from Sweden and Germany and there’s just not that strong a commitment to their school,” Johnson said. “We go to the Friday night game, and everyone wears the same colors, everyone is a Hilltopper. Their schools sound a lot like going to a job they don’t like a whole lot.”

Studies have shown that a commitment to school such as Johnson describes is precisely the commitment that keeps students from dropping out of school. Each dropout costs Minnesotans up to $1.1 million in lost taxes and added services.

The cost of dropouts and disengaged students might be quantifiable, but the cost of undeveloped potential is not. For Minnesota to succeed in the 21st Century, every student needs to develop to the fullest extent of his abilities.

For nearly a decade, state underinvestment has forced Minnesota schools to cut budgets every year. With reserves drying up and tax bases shrinking, we are now seeing the results. Unless state policymakers chart a new course now, students’ opportunities to succeed will dry up.
1 Minnesota State High School League, “The Value of Participation,” http://www.mshsl.org/mshsl/values.asp, accessed 3/9/09.
2 College Entrance Examination Board, “2001College Bound Seniors A profile of SAT program test takers,” http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/about/news_info/cbsenior/yr2001/NATL.pdf, accessed 3/9/09.
3 Jacqueline Ancess, David Allen, “Implementing Small Theme High Schools in New York City: Great Intentions and Great Tensions,” Harvard Educational Review, Fall 2006.
4 Dawn Podulka Coe, James M. Pivarnik, Christopher J. Womack, Mathew J. Reeves, Robert M. Malina, “Effect of Physical Education and Activity Levels on Academic Achievement in Children,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
5 A.H. Naylor, D. Gardner, L. Zaichkowsky, “Drug Use Patterns Among High School Athletes and Nonathletes,” Adolescence, 2001.

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