Competitive athletics at Shawnee Mission middle schools have been sidelined since the 1980s, but a new push from parents may put middle school sports back on the table.
By LUKE RANKER
Special to The Star
Over the summer, new superintendent Jim Hinson polled Shawnee Mission School District constituents about what changes or improvements the district should make. One topic that rose to the top was the idea of bringing back middle school sports, said district spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal.
The district dropped junior high sports when it switched to the middle school system in the mid-1980s. The district began intramural sports in the middle schools four years ago but has not had competition between those schools.
No decision has been made and there is no timeline yet for when the district might seriously consider the idea, Neal said.
“There has certainly been a strong interest from the community,” Neal said.
A significant reason the district is interested in middle school sports is that it would offer a way to boost Shawnee Mission’s high school athletics.
The district researched athletic state champions in the Kansas 4A, 5A and 6A classifications and found that in the last three years, 56 out of 62 state champions came from schools that had a middle school sports program feeding into the high school, Neal said.
Shawnee Mission schools have won a number state titles since 1985, but mostly in sports like cross country and tennis. Shawnee Mission schools have taken seven cross country titles in the last decade, for instance. Few of the district’s championships have been in volleyball, football or basketball.
Shawnee Mission West won the class 6A football championship in 2012, the first time West or any other Shawnee Mission school claimed a football title since 1985.
District athletic director Matt Johnson said while Shawnee Mission’s middle school intramural program has been very popular, the level of competition is not the same as mat chch-ups between schools.
If the topic advances, the school will have to research a number of things, including transportation and equipment costs, the availability of coaches and facilities, and game schedules.
Blue Valley and Olathe both have nine middle schools in their district, so they are able to fill a full schedule by competing inside their own districts, Johnson said. Shawnee Mission, however, only has five schools, so it would have to look outside its boundaries or have schools play each other more than once to fill a schedule.
In the 2012-2013 school year, Shawnee Mission spent about $779,000 on activities including athletics, music, drama and forensics districtwide. Which sports the district might add and how much they might spend will be a part of district’s research if the idea of adding middle sports solidifies, Johnson said.
As a former middle school principal, Johnson said he sees a great benefit to having school-sponsored sport programs. Being involved in school activities helps students feel connected to the school.
“It’s always good for kids coming to school to have something to attach to besides education,” he said. “They want something to look forward to at the end of the day.”
School administrators across the county see middle school athletics as a positive — not just for building strong high school athletic programs, but for providing a well-rounded education.
Because athletes have to meet an academic standard to play school-sponsored sports, there is often a benefit to learning in the classroom, Olathe athletic director Lane Green said. Student athletes understand that a certain grade-point average must be achieved in order to play, so they tend to maintain higher grades than if they weren’t involved in a school-sponsored program.
Blue Valley School District student activities director Rich Bechard said middle school athletics also help teach students responsibility. Students must be prepared for practice immediately after school when playing a school sport, unlike club sports, Bechard said, which are often have practice later in the evening when parents help the children get ready.
“There’s just some things you can’t duplicate with club sports,” he said.
Another much smaller Kansas school district, Fort Scott, added football, volleyball and basketball interscholastic competitions at the district’s only middle school in August. Previously, the district had 12 intramural sports for middle school students. Tom Davis, Fort Scott middle school activities director, said the district had been considering adding middle school athletics off and on since 1982.
For Fort Scott, the cost of adding four interscholastic sports was about the same as operating the 12 intramural sports.
Fort Scott was able to reuse intramural equipment and facilities, so their major cost was transportation. Davis said teams had to travel more than 100 miles for some games.
The intramural program has been a good opportunity to give students a chance to play, district athletic director Larry Fink said, but the community thought the competitive edge of interscholastic athletics was missing from the intramural-only system. For students who don’t want to play interscholastic sports, the district still offers intramurals.
“We have the best of both worlds,” he said.
The new programs have been successful so far, Fink said. Community members stepped up to coach the four sports; the district was able to work out a system where the middle school, intramural and high school programs could share facilities, and the new middle school sports quickly built a fan base, he said.
The district’s major concern, financing the new programs, became a non-issue.
“The challenge is can you offer the opportunities to students without strapping yourself,” he said. “When we crunched the the numbers it wasn’t much more money (to offer interscholastic sports.)
Metrowide programs like the Great American Basketball League and the Football and Cheerleading Club of Johnson County have been filling the void for Shawnee Mission youth athletes who want to compete outside intramural sports.
Brett Hunter, director of program operations at Sports Management Associates, the company that oversees GABL and FCCJC, said if Shawnee Mission did start a middle school sports program it would have a huge impact on SMA’s league enrollments. About 97 percent of SMA’s seventh- and eighth-grade athletes are from the Shawnee Mission district. Hunter didn’t have an exact number of football and cheerleading participants at that age but said there were close 5,000 players in the GABL program.
Because SMA leagues have programs for kindergartners through eighth-graders, its programs would still benefit young athletes if Shawnee Mission brings back middle-school sports, Hunter said.
“We’d continue our mission: getting kids ready for whatever the next step is,” he said.
When considering a new athletics program, administrators need to be careful of the type of culture they set up, said Mary Fry, an associate professor of sports psychology at the University of Kansas. Coaches can create either a “task and care” oriented environment or an “ego evolving” environment, Fry said.
In a “task and care” climate athletes are encouraged and supported regardless of their ability. The focus is on improving the ability of each athlete, which can lead to an overall stronger team. In an “ego evolving” culture, the focus is primarily the athletes with outstanding abilities. They often receive more attention and training, leading them to improve while the rest of the team remains stagnant, Fry said. Those players may become discouraged and eventually quit.
Fry said while some may argue that the ego-driven climate leads to more competitive and higher scoring teams, there is no statistical evidence that proves this. Instead, she said, programs that focus on learning and respect often see greater success because athletes are allowed to develop and hone individual strengths.
“If a kid is turned on to something, they can learn quickly,” Fry said. “That really increases the ability to reach a child’s potential.”
Developing a positive attitude in sports at an early age is important for maintaining lifelong athleticism.
That’s important for keeping youth health and active, said Andrew Fry, Mary’s husband and a sport and exercise science professor at KU. With many districts cutting physical education requirements due to staff cuts or scheduling problems, providing children with outlet through athletics is important for decreasing childhood obesity and diabetes rates among other health benefits, he said.