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For some middle school kids, sports lead to growth

The whole idea of school finally seems to make sense to my youngest son.

There's a payoff now, a reason to work on his math, science and punctuation. The results have been almost miraculous, really. Suddenly, as a seventh-grader, most of his sentences actually begin with capital letters and end with periods.

All because he made the tennis team at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics.

Okay, his excellent teachers deserve some credit — and the fact that they've made sure to tell us when we needed to crack the whip at home.

But the biggest change in his work and behavior came after he made the team, earned the right to play in every match and got some encouragement from his coach. It probably helped that Challenger slaughtered every other school.

(Amazing, isn't it, that the school with the highest concentration of middle-class kids dominates in tennis?)

It's not bribery that has kept him in line, though, yes, we've reminded him a few times that he can't play unless he keeps his grades up.

It's what sports do to that breed of kid who lives for them and not much else. Some of his false confidence — the chest-beating kind — has been replaced with the real thing. And all of those dismal academics periods are a lot more bearable for him when they lead up to a practice at the end of the day or, even better, a match.

Though I wouldn't know firsthand, I imagine it's the same for children who love music or art. Sure, some extracurricular stars — athletes especially — get arrogant and complacent. But, generally, happier kids are better kids. Give them a chance to excel at what they love and they grow in other ways, too.

Which is why I'm glad the Hernando School Board wants to keep middle school sports.

The district seems to be heading toward a program similar to Pasco's, where middle school athletes are charged $45 for the first sport, $30 for the second, with a cap of $75 per student and $120 per family each school year. Schools must raise money for students who can't afford to pay, said David Schoelles, Hernando's curriculum supervisor for middle schools.

It's certainly fair to ask parents to chip in. And the cost won't be an obstacle for our son or, probably, most other Challenger students, only 27 percent of whom were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches last year. But at Fox Chapel Middle School, for example, that figure is 68 percent. There will be more athletes who need financial help, and fewer parents who can afford to buy candy bars or whatever else the school sells to raise money.

We've already got a divide between haves and have-nots in this district. So, this is one thing we've got to watch out for — that pay-to-play doesn't make the gap even wider.

Remember, also, that middle schools have already cut electives and extracurricular activities, shifting resources to satisfy requirements for smaller class sizes and remedial instruction.

So we should also be on guard against schools with such narrow curriculums that kids tune out. I'm not saying that sports are as important as reading or writing, or the jobs of people who teach these subjects.

It's just that it was nice to hear my son, the other day, say he couldn't wait to get to school.

For some middle school kids, sports lead to growth 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 10:30am]
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