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This post is a duplicate of the article in the  AASA – August 2015 School Administrator Magazine.  

The entire issue (here) is dedicated to topics related to high school sports.

A superintendent’s case for a forward-thinking approach to interscholastic athletics addressing safety, cost and the balance with academics

His first reported concussion happened in youth soccer. His second came in high school football. A possible third head injury may have happened in pro football training camp. But when a rookie 24-year-old linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers, Chris Borland, decided to retire from the NFL in March, not due to injury but rather to prevent injury, the sports world uttered a collective gasp.

Parents and players have taken notice of Borland’s story and the growth in concussion research. In my 7,500-student district, I recently received an e-mail from a parent quoting Mike Ditka, an NFL Hall of Famer and legendary Chicago Bears head coach and tight end. While that may have surprised me, the provocative words he echoed did not: “If I had a young son today, I wouldn’t let him play football.”

More than ever, superintendents are being drawn into controversies around interscholastic sports. In just the past few months, news media have reported on a superintendent who resigned following the contentious termination of a varsity basketball coach; several superintendents drawn into student-athlete disciplinary cases over alleged hazing; a superintendent challenged by her community after she disciplined a football coach for an offensive sideline tirade; a superintendent who cancelled games against another school over the rival team’s “Redskins” nickname in support of his own school’s Native American population; and several superintendents caught in the middle of school board budget debates around financial support for school athletics.

Sports and schools have been interconnected for generations. Yet the rising tide of serious challenges is raising new questions about the sustainability of interscholastic sports programs. These deal with student-athlete health risks, competitive pressures from a social media-fueled public and tough questioning around the educational value of school-based programs when public revenues are stressed. Jointly, or in isolation, these pressures could lead to a scaling back, if not disappearance, of some school sports in the coming years.

Reigning Romanticism

To an outside observer, it seems as if high school sports never have been more popular. Varsity sports are big business, with communities investing in football and basketball facilities and major sports news outlets like Bleacher Report and ESPN giving high school athletics expansive coverage.

Beyond widespread media attention, several other factors support the notion that school sports will continue to thrive. Communities have a rich history of school sports, and nostalgia runs deep in our schools, notably in smaller communities whose sole identity these days may be tied to their public schools.

Adults often romanticize their own school sports experiences — from cheering on the football team to scoring the winning goal in a soccer match or a buzzer beater in basketball. Superintendents recognize the considerable pride that comes to a school and a community when a sports team wins a regional or state championship. Movies such as Hoosiers and Rudy continue to inspire us.

And unlike in other countries, where sports facilities used by pre-collegiate students typically are not located on a school campus, gymnasiums in North America generally are an integral part of school campuses. Given the physical connection, it makes logical sense that sports such as basketball, volleyball and wrestling will continue to remain within the school domain.

Three Pressures

The challenges I see school system leaders confronting in interscholastic sports fall into three categories.

Athlete safety. Coaches and school leaders always will assert that students’ safety comes first in scholastic sports participation. But grim evidence from expanding medical research on the long-term effects of sports-related concussions indicates that brain trauma can cause permanent cognitive impairment, memory loss, depression, dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to erratic behavior and suicide.

We’re learning that it’s not just the bone-crunching body hits in football that cause injury. Successive sub-concussive blows, even in sports such as soccer, rugby, lacrosse and ice hockey, can cause as much or more brain damage. The recovery time can be longer for children and adolescents. Notably, the majority of injuries occur during practices, not in interscholastic competition. A recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics indicated 58 percent of reported concussions in high school football occurred in practice sessions.

Most chilling, however, is the “culture of resistance” among players to self-report concussion symptoms. According to the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, “High school athletes and those with scholarship possibilities especially will try to convince parents and coaches that they feel fine, in order to resume play.”

Other serious student safety challenges include physical harassment, sexual abuse and the ugly ritual of team hazing. These issues are forcing superintendents, like one last fall at a high school in New Jersey, to take serious measures — in that case, cancelling the school’s varsity football season in response to a hazing incident. Community and public reaction to the cancellation was mixed and only proves to demonstrate how difficult it will be to make changes to the nation’s most popular sport.

Blurring lines between school and community sports. Beyond health and safety concerns, sports themselves are changing. Basketball, volleyball and soccer, for instance, used to be school-based sports primarily. Now, it seems as if the school season is just preparing young athletes for the extended club season. The Amateur Athletics Union basketball circuits across the continent have youngsters playing dozens of games, even sometimes more than 100, during the “off season.” Colleges use the AAU programs as the go-to source for recruiting athletes, meaning parents no longer see school sports as the pathway to university athletics.

Coaching and profit motives in some community programs have professionalized youth sports and raised questions about where school-based sports fit into this new world. In the community, athletes can freely move between programs in a “free agent” environment, and coaches and sports programs can be talent collectors, while public schools hold to academic and residential eligibility rules that limit movement.

High school sports once were neatly organized into seasons that more or less matched the terms of the school year. Students could run cross country in the fall, play basketball in the winter and participate in baseball or softball in the spring. Over the last couple of decades, youngsters have been pushed into a 12-month calendar. This poses a challenge for schools that try to encourage students to play multiple sports at the same time non-school-based sports programs are stressing specialization.

The place of sports in school. One historical advantage for school sports over those in the community has been the cost of participation. In most school districts, there is no pay-to-play measure. This has changed in recent years. As school district budgets tighten, superintendents and school boards are faced with choosing whether to prioritize athletics or core classroom services.

We also are seeing the need to redirect revenue sources once targeted for athletics, such as those generated by campus vending machines and gym rental use, to support the overall operating district budget. I am faced regularly with turning down requests to financially support school sports in my district as teams rely on user fees and parent fundraising more than ever to cover costs.

While competitive sports in secondary schools engage small numbers of participants, we realize we need to find ways for all students to be active to support their physical and academic health. Given the alarming rate of youth obesity, there are concerted efforts to focus on sports that promote inclusive participation and lifelong fitness. Classes in yoga, dance and personal fitness are becoming more common in high schools and our physical education classes have decreased their attention to competitive sports while increasing their focus on lifelong fitness.

Finally, the increased emphasis on global academic competition in education challenges the place of high school sports in the future. When our nations are competing with Finland and Singapore on the international stage and the stakes for our students are rising, competitive school sports can be seen as a distraction. Do we want our great math teachers spending their nights preparing lessons or coaching basketball? (OK, the answer is probably both!) As the expectations ratchet up for educators in the classroom, it is harder to see where commitments to competitive athletics fit into the new definition of a teacher.

The Way Forward

As a school principal recently said to me, “If we were starting schools from scratch, do you really think we would include competitive sports when the community does them so well?”

This conversation really challenges me. I have coached varsity-level sports, I’ve been president of the High School Basketball Association, and I’ve seen the amazing and continuous benefits of school sports on the lives of young people. I would far rather be the superintendent cheering on the championship team than overseeing the demise of these programs — which is precisely why we need to take a serious look at competitive sports in schools moving forward.

At their core, our schools are about nurturing the brain. As I wrote in my response to the parent’s e-mail with his warning from “Iron Mike,” we need to play close attention to the evolving science of brain injury and take student safety seriously. But let’s evolve our sports rather than eliminate them.

Football needs to be different because we know better than to continue to allow head contact in the game. The heads-up tackling initiative is a step forward. Helmet-mounted impact sensors may be another. Within the next few years, concussion management training for coaches and conservative “return to play” guidelines must be standard protocol.

We need to look at whether some sports are managed better in the community and, if so, perhaps we should stop offering them in schools. In British Columbia, we offer 17 different sports for boys and girls through our schools. Working with a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit groups, all those involved in sports need to jointly support high school student-athletes and not be in perpetual competition with one another.

For me, hearing community members tell “Friday Night Lights” tales of the past offers wonderful nostalgia and history, but it is not instructive about where we need to go next. Superintendents and other forward-looking system leaders must begin to envision competitive school sports for 2035, not 1955. The challenges individually are not insurmountable, but collectively they are a daunting set of factors. While I am convinced we could do nothing and school sports would continue for a while; looking 20 years out, like many other aspects of schooling, they may have to evolve.

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writinghardwork

Every month I read the magazine School Administrator cover to cover.  Produced by the AASA – the American Superintendents’ Association it moves from big picture issues, to practical current topics to interesting slices of life from a variety of others who serve in the same role as me.   It is my go-to professional journal.  Over the last four years I have got to know its editor, Jay Goldman.  Jay has been kind enough to take some of my blog posts and turn them into columns for the magazine, and I am right now working on a piece on school sports for an issue this summer.  It is not just the relevance that draws me to the School Administrator Magazine but also the quality of writing – which goes back to the tone and standards set by the editor.

I had the chance to attend a session at the recent AASA National Conference on Education hosted by Jay Goldman and his colleague Jimmy Minichello on Publishing Professionally: Guidance for School District Leaders.  I went there to look for tips on how better to take what I am writing every week for my blog and make it something that would work in a variety of other forms.  And like many of you out there, I do have dreams of writing a book one day.  It was a great session, but the key message I took away was one not really about writing for a magazine or books or even for blogging – the message I took away was Writing is Writing.  Something that fits with a message I often share, “Good writing still matters.”

There is one particular slide that brought this message home for me:

whywrite

If anything, being a good writer seems to be more important now than ever for teachers and administrators.  And while Jay was speaking about the power of writing in the context of a magazine, this slide is a great slide to answer the question – why blog?  The goal is not bloggers, for our students or the adults in the system – it is writers for the reasons that Jay outlines.  What is true is that blogging allows the writing to be more dynamic and allows us all to be owners of our own publishing company.

In the end though, writing is still writing and all of us should take up the challenge to do more of it in our profession.

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This is an updated version of a previous post and is published in the May 2013 Issue of School Administrator.

The struggle to find balance between home life and the superintendency — the focus of School Administrator’s November 2012 issue — resonated with me and I am sure with many others who have very public positions in education. Just a few days earlier, I had come across on CNN’s website Michael Takiff’s column “Why Doesn’t Obama Like to Schmooze?” which addressed the challenges a U.S. president faces in balancing his highly public life with his more private family life.

Though on vastly different levels, the parallels are astounding.

In sharp contrast to former President Bill Clinton, who often spent evenings relentlessly connecting with financiers and lawmakers, Takiff points out that Obama works equally hard at being president but at the same time makes every effort to have a balanced family life. To quote from Takiff’s column: “[W]hile he is America’s only president, he is also his daughters’ only father; his duty to them demands that he take time out from his duty to his country. And so he makes sure that at 6:30 each evening he’s seated at the family dinner table. After the meal, he helps his daughters with their homework.”

Changing Rules

Takiff’s profile of Obama struck a chord because I am questioning if parenting is generation-oriented. Does parenthood differ today from that of previous generations? And how is technology affecting the paradigms of traditional work ethics?

Today, it is no longer a point of honour to be the first car in the office parking lot in the morning or the last one to leave at night. That was for many (and still is for some) an expression of hard work, but technology has made it possible to log work hours from a location of our choosing. Certainly, some aspects of my job require that I be present at my office and that I spend face time with others. But I can carry out other duties on my own, in the office, at home, in the evening or at first light of morning.

Since becoming a parent more than a decade ago (and now as the father of four), the first question I always ask when considering a job opportunity — before salary, before potential prospects, before anything else — is this: “What do the evening commitments look like?” Because, like President Obama, I am not interested in being an absentee parent. I am happy doing the work online late into the night and picking it up early the next day. But I want to reserve a window of time between 6 and 9 o’clock at night to engage with my kids on a regular basis.

Now in my third year as a superintendent, I do find the position is what one makes of it, and there are so many ways to do it right. Some superintendents are masters of the community, attending every community function. While this is important, one still needs to pick and choose how to spend one’s time. My focus tends to be about “getting the learning right” in the classrooms, and classrooms sometimes have been a priority over community. I realize what I attend speaks to what I say is important, so these decisions always are made carefully.

Family Friendly

If the president of the United States has figured out a way to be home most evenings by 6:30 to join his family, surely I (and those who work with me and have jobs like mine) can find new ways to be home for dinner a couple of nights a week. It is about choices and priorities.

To the credit of those I am working with in West Vancouver, British Columbia, from staff member to trustees, we are experimenting with more online meetings and looking at doing more of the face-to-face meetings during daytime hours. The six members of our district leadership team all have children in the K-12 system now, so this issue is relevant for all of us. We also have a governing board that is committed to modeling family-friendly values in the workplace.

So if the president can dine with his family most nights, that’s certainly good enough for me to aspire to.

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This is an updated version of a previous post and is published in the September 2012 Issue of School Administrator.

It’s impossible to attend an education event today without someone on stage passionately calling out for more innovation. It’s probably the most widely used word in my blog posts as well.

Discussions about innovation permeate much of what I have been addressing in our school district. The innovation label applies to all manner of things — ideas, methods, programs — and pretty much anything that differs from current practice.

Yet the challenge is that, for every new program we add to the K-12 system, we also must shed an existing program. As it is, the general public and the educators point out that we are trying to do too much, to cover too much ground. In many U.S. jurisdictions and in British Columbia where I reside, in order to provide a competitive slate, we try to meet the expectations of parents by offering a curriculum jammed full of options. At the same time, we struggle to address the standards established by our ministries of education. Putting the two together, we create a curriculum too full, one bursting at the seams.

Unfortunately, we are better at initiating programs than we are at ending them, even when they have outgrown their usefulness.

The Test of Time
In the resulting litmus test, it has become apparent that some ideas, interventions, courses or programs have a shelf life after which effectiveness disintegrates. The world is constantly changing, and we need to reflect that process of ongoing change in all that we do.

This is particularly true of initiatives intended to encourage the use of technology and digital literacy. I’ve watched a steady evolution away from the “learning with technology” approach toward a broad-based integration of information technologies into our learning systems. We no longer need to teach K-12 students  how to use computers, but we find our curricula so overburdened that it is difficult to make room for programs that would encourage that integration.

The problem is that we are much better at starting initiatives than ending them. Even when existing programs no longer connect with students, we often protect them because our investment of resources, in one way or another, into some of these programs dissuades us from abandoning them. On the other hand, holding on to these programs limits the development of new programs and learning experiences for students.

It’s something of a Catch 22 because we know new innovations need time to take root and grow. We have tried running all the courses from the previous year along with the new ones proposed (to the same students), but sign-up is fragmented, and many courses are cancelled because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop.

The Solution?
So what’s the answer? Well, I believe we need to take a cue from the private
sector, which fully understands that it is necessary to let go of the old and make room for the new. When innovations no longer work, they are abandoned, or the company goes under. The concept provides us with a direction forward.

A case in point: Diane Nelson, who nurtures our school district’s sports academy programs, proposed and launched a field hockey academy.
It didn’t work out; so, instead of trying to force the field hockey academy to work, she dropped the idea and now has started a baseball academy, which drew sufficiently high registration to launch this fall. She knew to walk away from one and to reinvest in another, continuing the search to find programs to
meet the needs of our students and their families.

When someone says that our kids should be doing more “X,” it is usually
difficult to disagree, whether that might be financial literacy, cross-curricular
experiences, physical activity, workplace experience, self-directed
inquiry or some other wonderful, innovative program. To keep on adding
“X” will eventually work against us, covering more superficially, and preventing students from digging deeper in their learning.

When courses disappear or school rituals retire, it should not be seen
as negative. It represents progress. Many ideas have a shelf life. So, while
we are really good at celebrating all the new notions in education today,
we shouldn’t be shy about acknowledging the need to cull innovations
along the way.

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