Madison School Board members are contemplating a comprehensive analysis of the role of athletics — competitive and recreational — in students’ academic achievement.

It’s something that has not been looked at in depth before, they said.

“If someone asked me what the district philosophy on athletics was, I would have to say I have no idea,” said board member Ed Hughes last week. “What are we trying to accomplish and how does it further our educational mission?”

The interest in plumbing the role of athletics was sparked by a proposal last month by Michael Flores to add $250,000 to the district’s $504 million budget for next year to begin competitive sports programs in middle schools.

“I see athletics as an opportunity for kids to stay in school,” Flores, a volunteer youth wrestling coach, said.

Flores pointed to some intriguing preliminary data on student athletes gathered by the district that shows students involved in athletics have higher grade point averages, better attendance and lower incidence of negative behavior than students not involved in school-sponsored athletics.

That preliminary data also shows that those who statistically score lower on measures on academic achievement — students of color and low-income, special education and English language learner students — are less likely to be involved in school-sponsored athletics.

The board rejected the proposed additional expense next year to introduce competitive athletics to middle schools. Members say they want to get a picture of the function of athletics in the schools before coming up with any new sports programs, and clearly are curious about the prospect of advancing the benefits of athletic participation to the school district’s core mission.

Among areas members said they would like to look at are: how sports are organized and paid for; the role of booster clubs; fees for sports programs and level of accessibility for all students, including special education students.

A clearer picture of the relationship between athletic participation and academic achievement also is needed, said school board president James Howard.

“Is it that students who perform in athletics do so much better in classes, or that good students like athletics?” Howard asked.

Some of the access issues are tied to economics beyond the control of the school district, he said. For example, students whose families can afford to pay fees for private sport “club” teams develop high skill levels.

“Kids without that access can’t compete, I’ll tell you that,” Howard said.

So he would like to get a sense of whether participation in recreational sports also is linked to students doing better in the classroom, he said.

Coaches and athletic directors operate more or less independently of principals, depending on the school, school board members noted. And as far as competitive sports, the high schools have vastly different outcomes.

“Some schools traditionally are among the best in the state, and other teams have not been within shouting distance of a winning season in forever — what’s that about?” asked Hughes.

School board member TJ Mertz pointed out that as the district struggles to find a way to engage parents and the community with school activities, some of its athletic coaches have excellent track records doing just that.

“There may be things we can learn from them,” Mertz said.

School board members agreed to schedule a series of discussions on the role of athletics at their meetings next school year when they set their calendar in August.

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