Apr 08, 2021 2:57 PM

Involvement in Activity Programs Matters – Now More Than Ever

Posted Apr 08, 2021 2:57 PM
Melissa King-Knowles is a high school principal who has served secondary public education for 18 years.
Melissa King-Knowles is a high school principal who has served secondary public education for 18 years.

It has been a challenging school year so far to say the least. After dealing with the pandemic all year, we had to endure a once-in-a-lifetime winter storm, which cancelled school for an entire week. We could not even attempt an online pivot due to the rampant power and internet outages occurring throughout the area.

While tackling an added layer of obstacles, coaches frantically tried to reschedule playoff games and band directors had to postpone state music contests. More than ever before, having faced yet another traumatizing situation, we are convinced of the need and value of activities programs for high school students. These programs – sports and performing arts – have always been a vital piece of the educational journey for students. Despite all the challenges we have faced this year, this statement has never been more accurate: Involvement matters, now more than never.

Students at our school were surveyed in early February. The goal was to obtain their thoughts on the importance of being involved in cocurricular activities, especially while getting an education during this global pandemic.

Fort Bend Independent School District (greater Houston area) is the eighth-largest school district in Texas, serving more than 76,000 students. Dulles High School, flagship high school of the district, is a 6A school with approximately 2,670 students. Approximately 40 percent of the students completed the survey, and those respondents fairly equally represented each grade level.

Almost 850 (82 percent) of the respondents are online learners, and 18 percent are in the face–to-face setting. A total of 638 students identified as being involved with a cocurricular organization or program, with 578 of those students participating in athletics, performing arts or both.

Other information gathered from the survey includes 50 percent of the students stating that they have made friends through their involvement, and 371 students claim that their involvement has helped them feel more connected to the school community. Also, 489 students (47 percent) stated that their involvement has helped them connect with one or more of the school’s coaches, directors or teachers.

While all this information supports involvement in athletics and performing arts as critical to fostering a deeper school connection, it was most compelling to hear what students said in their open-ended remarks when asked to elaborate on whether their involvement with their respective activities helped them develop a greater connection to our school community:

Extracurriculars are important because they help students feel connected to the community and not isolated in this time of quarantine.

It’s very important. It’s one of the few things getting me through this pandemic.

It’s important that we make these connections because we are all feeling alone right now, and these connections can help us get through these challenging times.

You need the socialization, sweat and tears to keep you sane in all of this.

It allows us the ability to truly feel like we are part of a community and not so isolated in our own homes.

Extracurricular organizations remind me that there is still a world worth living in outside of this pandemic.

It helps you feel less alone by reminding you that other people are going through the same situation. Even so, we are able to overcome these challenges by rehearsing, playing and working together.

During a time like this pandemic, it’s important to maintain some sort of connection with your peers and teachers, and staying active and involved in an organization can be a huge help.

Whether amid playoff games for our girls basketball team, which was undefeated during this unusual season, or watching our Dolls dance team perform for family prior to a contest, or celebrating our Academic Decathlon team for earning its fifth-year State Champion title, there is a deeper sense of gratification for our directors, our coaches and the benefits these programs provide to our schools. These moments serve as reminders of brighter yesterdays and evidence of the tenacious resiliency of our student-athletes and artists.

Many of us are likely to face tightened budgets as we forge ahead. Advocate on behalf of your athletics and performing arts programs. Find ways to sustain them. In doing so, you will not only add depth and richness to students’ journeys through high school, you will ensure that your campus culture is strong enough to sustain even the most difficult circumstances. Steps to advocate for your programs

Empower your coaches and program directors to establish consistent safety protocols.

Communicate with families – convey expectations, request support.

Encourage optional practices/rehearsals.

Celebrate success – let them tell your school’s story of resilience.

Find ways to utilize fiscal resources to support your programs through professional development or matching funds for higher-cost items.

Develop master schedules that support program development and growth (consider placing classes at the beginning or end of the school day to dovetail with practices and rehearsals).

Additional Considerations

Our district designed protocol expectations that include wellness screenings and social-distancing guidelines so that students could participate in athletics and performing arts even if they elected to learn remotely. Our coaches, sponsors and directors understand their role in ensuring student safety. They model the expectations, as they know this is the only way to keep actively engaging students.

We set schedules that allow students to practice and rehearse without impacting their online course schedules. Families have received frequent communication, with updates on adjustments and the safety measures in place. We have also adapted so that those who have greater health risks are not penalized for not taking part to the same degree as their classmates. Although this suggests teams or programs may not be as robust as they would have previously been, it also means when we round the corner from this experience, retention is likely to be higher.

There is still uncertainty as we look ahead to the next school year, but one thing remains steadfast: student involvement in campus cocurricular activities will serve to bridge some of the gaps we are going to face. We are going to need all the help we can get. We must ensure that, even in the throes of such unexpected challenges, these programs remain strong, viable and accessible so that students continue to reap the many benefits of participating.