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Creating an Education-based Athletics and Performing Arts Culture

By Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald on November 07, 2017 hst Print

Yes, I‘m one of those – a former athlete, coach, athletic director and for the past 25 years an administrator. When my first daughter was born, I immediately envisioned athletic glory and college scholarships. While club sports were not prevalent at the time, our daughter played field hockey, basketball and softball in recreational league programs.

Fast forward 13 years. It was a beautiful spring afternoon and I had turned my whistle in for a walkie-talkie and was an assistant principal. I called home to let my wife know that I would pick up our daughter from softball practice when I received the soul-crushing news. My daughter had informed her mother that she no longer wanted to try out for the middle school softball team. Instead, she wanted to be in the band and to try out for the spring musical. My dreams were crushed. I was furious. My time and money had been wasted. While I wanted to make her go to practice and explain to her coach why her next superstar pitcher had decided not to try out, cooler heads prevailed.

So, as I reflect upon the way I reacted to my daughter’s decision that day, I am ashamed of myself, but proud of her and her courage. Now don’t get me wrong, I always enjoyed watching the marching band or attending a play. My school district prides itself on what we have labeled the four A’s: Academics, Arts, Athletics and Atmosphere. I just never envisioned myself sitting in the audience hoping that the band hit all the right notes or that everyone in the play remembered their lines. So, I can honestly say my perspective changed that afternoon. I always knew the importance of athletics to a school’s culture; now I would witness firsthand the impact of the performing arts.

Interestingly, the foundation for both programs can be found in elementary school. Athleticism is the basis for physical education class and encouraged during “recess,” while participation in the performing arts can be traced back to music class and the “recorder.”

From a democratic beginning, which not only encouraged students to participate, but expected it, students then move into the middle school or junior high school and there they were forced to make choices. At this level, students deal with the reality of natural ability and discover the commitment and countless hours of practice necessary to excel. They begin to learn of the selection process, as coaches, musical conductors or theatre directors choose their “team” and assign positions.

Ironically, at this time some students will start to see athletics or the performing arts as their lifeline or connection, giving them a purpose outside of the classroom and a reason to stay in school. For the few gifted students, talk of a scholarship will begin.

Today’s middle school has become the battleground for a student’s future and the key to the development of a successful district-wide athletic and performing arts program. Yet, middle school programs are neglected or in some cases are non-existent. Students perform with “hand-me-down” instruments or uniforms. These programs look and feel undervalued, and if cuts need to be made, these programs are sacrificed, forcing students to look elsewhere. Sure, even without a feeder program, every few years a high school will excel in a sport or in the arts; however, these are fleeting moments and not sustainable.

The key to developing and sustaining successful programs is found in the ability of the administrator to practice the art of compromise. The coaches and band director must understand that to work together they must be willing to do what is in the best interest of the student. This is done by providing students with broad opportunities through extracurricular activities or cocurricular activities and by allowing for an exploration without bias.

Coaches, teachers and parents must be taught to compromise when a middle school student is interested in participating in the performing arts and athletics at the same time. This makes hiring the right people for the jobs essential. The wrong person will kill a program and damage a school culture.

The selection of middle school coaches, music teachers, art teachers and theatre coaches is as important as selecting their counterparts at the high school. These individuals must understand their roles and understand that communication and flexibility are the expectations. All too often, middle school positions are used as a training ground for coaches before they move on to the “big time.” The same can even be said for the conductor or director.

The administration must be cognizant of all these issues and must ensure that students are encouraged to pursue their interests, but must also be directed to find the area in which they excel. However, it must be made clear that student growth and development is the purpose of the middle school program, and if a choice must be made, students along with their parents must be the ones to make it.

Sure, there is a cost for these programs at both the district and the school levels. Salaries, equipment, instruments, music and playing fields are all a necessity; and while it may be impossible to provide everything immediately, a plan must be created that demonstrates to everyone that the district is making a serious commitment to both programs. When this commitment is made, students, the school, the district and the community all benefit.

When students are given the opportunity to develop an appreciation for these programs in middle school, they enter high school better able to make choices. Of course, when strong programs have been developed, there are those occasions when a choice is not necessary and a wrestler performs with the concert band, a basketball player sings with the chorus or a championship tennis player appears on stage performing  Shakespeare. You may even find a football team dressed as gangsters performing in “Guys and Dolls” bringing the house down!

These things will not happen unless everyone buys into a culture that believes in and supports both athletics and the performing arts. So, while I don’t advocate having my type of eye-opening experience, I do believe that superintendents need to wake up to the importance of middle school programs in shaping their athletics and performing arts programs.