Extra-curricular activities offer priceless experiences

A week ago, I sat huddled in the freezing cold weather, along with the hundreds of other cheering Waconia fans at the Boys Soccer State Tournament game at Hopkins High School. Despite the miserable weather conditions, we were all there in force, excited, and ready to cheer for our team. A mom who was sporting multiple layers of winter gear leaned over and said, “This must be one of the best parts of your job.” I smiled, and agreed that it is. For some, it must seem that an athletic event like that is totally unrelated to my position as Superintendent of Schools. Certainly, there are those who assume that my only area of “real” responsibility is to the classroom and the development of academic skills.
There’s no question that the academic development of students is our primary goal. And yet, a tremendous amount of research has repeatedly demonstrated a strong and positive correlation between high school sports participation and academic achievement. Across a variety of measurements and data, various methodologies and conditions, these correlations are confirmed. Very simply, the “dumb jock” stereotype just isn’t true. Kids who play sports, on average, do better in school than kids who don’t participate. This doesn’t only apply to athletics. The same is true for students in music programs and clubs or other activities.
As an educational community, we know that student participation in activities and athletics helps to develop a sense of connection in students that is critically important to their school success. Research on success factors confirms that students must feel a sense of belonging and feel engaged in their schools. This sense of engagement can occur through positive relationships with teachers, counselors, nurses, principals, music directors, coaches and peers.
Approximately 80 percent of Waconia High School students are involved in at least one co-curricular activity. We know that this is critically important to the development of a sense of belonging, as well as the skills to set goals. It also fosters the beginning of critical life skills such as communication, friendships, relationships, and teamwork.
It isn’t just the “star” athletes or musicians that receive the benefits of extra-curricular opportunities. Many of our activities have a place for everyone. Our High School Conservation Club has over 200 members that advocate for the environment and participate in various outdoor activities. Many of the sports have a “no cut” provision, which allows any eligible student to practice and compete, regardless of ability level.
As I sat there that night, I held in my Superintendent brain all of the research and pedagogy that supports student success through athletics or activities. But in my “mom” brain, I set aside all of the research, and found tremendous personal delight in seeing hundreds of community members travelling together, shivering together, and cheering together for Waconia student athletes. The benefits of that type of community support cannot be overstated. As a mom, I remember the look in our kids’ eyes when they received applause or cheers. I remember their joy at wearing school colors, a letter jacket, a costume or a uniform, that showed where they belong. To paraphrase the Visa commercials:
Two tickets to soccer game: $14;
2 cups of hot chocolate: $4;
Being part of a community that supports their students: Priceless.

Superintendent’s Report by Dr. Nancy Rajanen, Waconia Public Schools.