School Sports Cuts Could Hit Students on Many Levels

By Sharee Lopez, New America Media

To gymnast Lindsey Oliver, 18, a senior at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, her daily gym classes are her motivation for going to school.

“If I don’t do well enough in my classes, I won’t be able to be in gymnastics,” said Oliver, who must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average in order to stay in sports.

Oliver said her coach would often allow her and her classmates to apply workout time to their homework to get their grades up if need be.

“Being in gymnastics has helped boost my grades as I have more incentive to try [hard] in school, so that I could compete,” said Oliver.

California’s Budget Crunch
However, like many states California is confronting an ever-tighter financial crunch, forcing near bone-deep cuts in schools across the state, meaning that Oliver’s beloved gym class could soon be on the chopping block.

California Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget in May, aimed at balancing the state’s $16 billion deficit, contains several proposed tax initiatives — a temporary sales-tax increase and higher taxes on the wealthy – that, if rejected by voters come November, could lead to more cuts in school districts.

According to officials from Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), for instance, failure to pass Brown’s tax initiatives would force them to cut around $29 million for the 2012-13 school year. Sports programs would likely be among those to go.

Even if the tax measure passes, they add, the district will still have to make some $20 million in cuts, though sports and physical education classes would likely be spared.

For Oliver, the impact of losing the phys-ed program would go beyond sports, effecting her efforts to maintain good health and the social benefits that come out of working and training with a diversity of people.

“To me, gymnastics is more than just a competitive [sport],” she said. “These girls are my sisters. I have grown in the past three years with most of them. Taking away something like a sport from people who have been in it so long is wrong.”

For others, it is about building a closer relationship with the school community.

Fitness and Community
“I did PE because for two years it was mandatory,” said Ariel Mercado, a Filipino American junior at Wilson High School. She later developed an interest in playing competitive badminton — a rising international sport — after one of her friends complemented her abilities. Mercado says the sport has given her a sense of confidence and of belonging to the school community.

“Badminton is important to me because it has helped me meet a lot of people, become more social, more fit, and feel like a part of something,” Mercado said.

Losing the phys-ed classes, she adds, would mean fewer opportunities to exercise and develop in her sport. Mercado’s family cannot afford a gym membership or a private trainer for her to continue developing her athletic potential.

Many families in Long Beach, where 70 percent of students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch, face a similar struggle, one compounded by the alarming rate of obesity among this generation of youth.

According to Kidsdata.org, close to 40 percent of California’s 5th, 7th and 9th graders are overweight or obese. In Los Angles County, where LBUSD is located, 41.6 percent are overweight.

Racial Disparities
LBUSD figures show that among Long Beach students, roughly one-in-three African American or Latino youth are either in danger of or already exceed the healthy-weight zone. That compares with close to one in five for Asian and white children.

Studies show that high obesity rates stem from numerous factors, including less time for families to prepare meals at home, high soda consumption, and long periods in sedentary activities like watching TV or playing computer games.
The closure of numerous public parks has also made schools the only place that an increasing number of kids can engage in regular exercise.

“I’ve been fat my whole life, and I just knew if I didn’t change I wouldn’t be happy,” said Jonathan Calix, a senior at Wilson High. He said he was never athletic, but after three years of PE classes, he learned to care about his health.
When he began playing football, he shed many pounds.

Stronger Academics, Less Smoking, Better Motivation
The U.S. Department of Education’s “High School and Beyond” study indicates that students involved in some type of athletic activity while in high school tend to have stronger academic goals and fewer disciplinary issues. The American Medical Association has also found that student athletes are 40 percent less likely to smoke than nonathletes.

Back at Woodrow Wilson High, Lindsey Oliver is adamant in her view that cutting sports would erode students’ motivation for going to school.

“I’d have to say that they’d be getting rid of the reason a lot of kids look forward to going to school,” she said.

Sharee Lopez wrote this article under a New America Media youth-education reporting fellowship, a program supported by the California Education Policy Fund.

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June 28, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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