The Sanctity Of Athletic Programs To Low-Performing Schools

The Sanctity Of Athletic Programs To Low-Performing Schools

..and why they insist on maintaining sports despite the threat of closure.

A recent story in The Atlantic highlights the plight of a small rural school district among the threat of school “reorganization” rules. For many rural communities around the country the school is a kind of nexus; providing jobs, an identity, even a weekend’s entertainment in the form of athletic events. However, far too often state mandates require that low performing schools be closed or consolidated to provide their students with a better education. This begs the question, “What is more damaging to a student’s chances; the loss of academic opportunities, or the loss of their community?”

According to the rules laid down in the No Child Left Behind Act, persistently low performing schools face closure and “reorganization”. Texas’ Premont Independent School District, the superintendent is faced with the possible closure of his school due to low student achievement. The school serves the 2,700 residents of Premont, Texas, and as Frank DaVilla, the county constable and SRO told AP reporter Christopher Sherman, “The school shuts down in this town, the town dies... This is all we have." In an effort to save the school, and possibly the community, the superintendent has decided to cancel all athletic programs, which will save about $150,000 annually (a significant chunk of their $400,000 total operating budget). By devoting this money entirely to academics, the district hopes to raise student achievement in time to prevent the school’s closure.

What struck me as odd is that many of the state and local officials opined the loss of the athletic programs (though acknowledging the necessity in this extreme case). In many such situations, however, athletics programs seem to guide the decision-making process. In one such case in Iowa, several small towns were forced to consolidate for both financial purposes. However, rather than relocating two under-performing schools to the third, which had the highest student achievement rates in the area, the communities voted to relocate to the school with the strongest football program.

As communities are forced to make fundamental decisions about their purpose, their importance in the community, and their continuing existence, why are athletic programs considered such a sacred cow? There’s no question that athletic programs teach students values in teamwork, community, and leadership. However, if the school’s very existence is in jeopardy, as it is in Premont, Texas, shouldn’t they be cut? Fine arts programs, clubs, and other extra-curricular activities have seen major cuts from financially strapped schools, yet athletic programs often persist to the end. It’s a misallocation of a struggling community’s resources to think that it’s the football team, or the baseball team, that is holding the community together, and not the school itself. At least in Premont, the superintendent seems to understand that.