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State School Board Leaders Discuss Importance of Activity Programs

By NFHS on November 10, 2021 hst Print

Editor’s Note: Leaders of four state school boards associations share their personal and professional viewpoints on the important roles that local school boards play in making sure that athletics and other activity programs remain a vital part of high schools across the country.

Shawn Hime
Executive Director
Oklahoma State School Boards Association

Sports played a pivotal role in my life growing up in southeastern Oklahoma. Depending on the time of year, you could find me on the baseball diamond, the basketball court or the football field. I took pride in representing my school, but mostly I enjoyed spending time with my teammates doing something we loved.

When I reflect on those days, I don’t think about the plays, the workouts or even our wins and losses. Instead, I remember the relationships and positive experiences. Many of those I competed alongside became lifelong friends. Together, we learned important lessons that continue to benefit us to this day – the value of hard work, the importance of discipline and the potential of teamwork.

At the time, I likely didn’t appreciate the commitment that extracurricular activities required of my school district – the personnel, the facilities, the equipment and more. Now, I know differently. Every time I laced up my cleats, there were dozens of people who helped make that opportunity possible – starting with the members of our school board.

Students across the nation continue to benefit from the investment their local school boards are making in athletics, fine arts and other extracurricular clubs and activities. From voting to fund new programs to cheering for athletes and musicians on Friday nights, these education leaders make it possible for students to learn new skills and grow their natural gifts. Additionally, they recognize every student deserves a well-rounded and robust school experience.

The research is clear: Students who participate in extracurricular activities are more likely to succeed in the classroom than their peers who do not. They are more likely to graduate, to go to college and to achieve an undergraduate degree. Their attendance and discipline records tend to be better as well.

For some, especially at-risk students, sports and fine arts are what draws them to school and motivates them to earn the grades they need to participate. For others, the success they experience in their chosen activities drives them to be the best in other facets of life, including academics. For all, these programs foster a sense of belonging and achievement.

Extracurricular programs often provide students with greater accountability because those who join share a common goal and count on one another. Coaches, sponsors and directors also provide students with additional mentors and trusted adults, during a time of life when they need one most.

Athletics and fine arts are a valuable way school boards invest in today’s students and tomorrow’s leaders. Through these programs, students learn to value their health. They learn the importance of practice and of honing one’s skills. They learn how to get along with and collaborate with others. They learn how to lead and how to follow. Perhaps most importantly, however, they learn never, ever to give up.

From the band to the boardroom or the pitch to the presidency, the skills they learn as student-athletes and musicians will benefit them throughout their lives. No matter what their goals, they will use the lessons they learned — on the field, in the pool, on the stage and in the classroom — to reach them.

Jim Green
Executive Director
Oregon School Boards Association

Athletics have been a part of my schooling for as long as I can remember, and so incorporating that experience into leading a statewide school board association comes naturally.

As I travel around Oregon (albeit much less during the pandemic), it’s clear to see how much athletics are intertwined with community identity. Where I grew up on the southern Oregon coast, you are either a Bulldog (North Bend High) or a Pirate (Marshfield High) – and that’s not just on Friday nights during football season.

A few years ago, one of our local high schools had to cancel the football season because of an ongoing hazing investigation. The community was in turmoil for months.

From my perspective, many of our school board members have already bought into the concept that athletics and other extracurricular activities can be the glue that lends a school community a sense of place and oft times helps keep students invested in their education. I grew up in a challenging environment, and my teammates and coaches in baseball, football and wrestling grew to be an extended family for me in my teen years.

I asked Kevin Cassidy, the former president of the Oregon School Boards Association and an avid skier and outdoorsman, to share his perspective on this subject. He said it is vital that school leaders do everything in their power to offer a wealth of extracurricular activities that allow students the opportunity to explore their interests and find connections.

“I truly feel these activities should not be termed ‘extra’ but should be considered a part of the entire educational program,” Cassidy says. “The benefits of providing a truly holistic educational experience simply do not exist without including these opportunities for our students to explore.”

He shared with me the experience of his son, Kale, who struggled to find interest in team sports at a young age but later blossomed as a cross country runner. From one of the slowest runners on the junior varsity team, Kale grew to become a three-time district champion who ultimately placed first in the state at 3,000 meters. His combined athletic and academic skills helped lead him to the prestigious Colorado School of Mines, where he now runs cross country.

“I can only imagine how these opportunities and experiences will assist him in obtaining his own personal successes throughout life moving forward,” Cassidy says.

As a former school board member myself, I often say there is nothing like that moment when you stand in the stadium in June and get to hand seniors their high school diploma. That’s the real race for teenagers – and for many of them the athletic experience helps propel them to that goal.

John Ashley
Executive Director
Wisconsin Association of School Boards

Athletics matter to School Board members. Here’s how we support them.

Ensuring that all students have an equal chance to enjoy the benefits of extracurricular activities, including athletics, is a goal shared by school boards and proponents of high school athletics.

When an athletic director in one Wisconsin district started a successful effort to improve participation, we invited them to share their story at our statewide education convention.

It’s just one example of how statewide school board associations help their members understand the role athletics plays in a well-rounded, comprehensive public education.

We assist boards in developing policies, provide legal guidance to boards and administrators, offer professional development on a wide range of topics, and advocate for legislation on behalf of school boards. In addition, we serve as the collective voice of school boards and help others to understand their governing role.

A school board meeting can be a new playing field, and our members ultimately make better decisions when athletic directors and coaches know the lay of the land.

Our advice on meeting agendas and how to interact with a school board can be instructive to athletic professionals as well, including:

  • Work with your district administrator if you believe an item needs to be on the agenda for a school board meeting.
  • Don’t assume your school board already understands the issues at play.
  • It’s OK when you don’t have an answer — say you’ll research it and get back to the board.
  • Be sure to give your board the opportunity to acknowledge and honor participating students.

Many school board associations also offer our members technical education on the policies and laws that surround athletics, including Title IX.

For example, in Wisconsin, we developed a training series specifically to help school staff understand and implement changes to this federal law.

When you understand the role of school boards in athletics and you can speak their language, you’ll have a clearer understanding of where your essential work fits in the school district’s overall vision.

Legislative advocacy is another way that we work with statewide athletic associations to advance shared goals. For instance, the WASB is working with our state athletic association to support legislation to address harassment and abuse of coaches and referees.

State school board associations also help their members learn from each other.

The WASB, for example, promulgated a policy on sportsmanship from a rural district of about 400 students. The policy asked district staff to make ethics and morality the “number one priority” and set expectations for students and fans, as well.

Scholar-athletes are often leaders in our schools and play a role in establishing a school’s culture. Our members want to support your programs, and we want our members to be effective.

Nathan G. Mains
Chief Executive Officer
Pennsylvania School Boards Association

The correlation between student extracurriculars, grades and behavior has been talked about and researched for many years. Going back to 2004, a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education showed that students who participate in extracurricular activities are three times more likely to have a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher, over students who do not participate in any extracurriculars.

According to the study, students who participate in extracurricular activities also showed positive progress in self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as increased connectivity to the school. Bringing it forward—Crimson, a world leader in today’s competitive college admissions industry, cites some of the same benefits of extracurriculars including academic performance and higher self-esteem, but also adding to it, social opportunities, productive breaks, essential life skills, exploration of interests, broadened perspective, resume highlights and college applications.

The Cornell Policy Review released a paper titled, Maximizing Educational Outcomes with Extracurricular Activities, which states, “Of its many goals, America’s public education system aims to educate its future leaders and citizens. Policymakers throughout the nation are constantly striving to implement new strategies that maximize these educational outcomes.

While the focus has primarily been on educational achievement and classroom learning, extracurricular activities (EAs) have also been championed as a complementary strategy that aids in the improvement of behavioral and cognitive learning, teaching valuable life and learning skills that translate to better success both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Thinking back to my time as a high school student growing up in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, instrumental and vocal music, theatre, ninth-grade football, and student government played the role of complementary educational strategy as a driving aspect of my developmental years. While I have no doubt that I benefited from an excellent academic program and wonderful educators for my core courses, I know that I learned just as much from extracurriculars.

I recall the numerous opportunities to step into leadership roles as an officer or as the field drum major. The annual school musical provided a chance to learn and improve public speaking, memorization and how to balance my course load and the commitment that comes with performing in a show. I am grateful for the many leadership lessons and basic accounting practices learned as treasurer of the student council. I developed a lifelong appreciation for the talent shown by amazing football players. I learned in one year, not only about teamwork and good coaching, but also that I was a much better fan than player!

Now, as the parent of a high school junior, I am again reminded how our daughter has been shaped by her love of music and theatre. It has grown her self-confidence, her love of the arts and given her a deep passion for her desired career path – as an opera performer. I am occasionally asked how our daughter developed a love of opera at a young age and the answer is always the same – from her exposure to the arts programs at her school.

Academics and extracurriculars are not just complementary – they are two halves, both needed to complete the whole student experience.