Tuesday, March 12, 2013

March Madness: When Learning Time Meets Athletics

I like my son's public school. I really do.

He's in kindergarten this year. I find his school to be a nurturing environment with a solid focus on learning and a similar focus on community and respect for others. His school was recently recognized by the state for its overall academic achievement and for being in the top 10% of state Title I schools for achievement growth in math and reading.

But his school - and the entire school district - made a curious decision last Friday. As a result of the high school boys' basketball team making it into the state tournament, school was released early (just after lunch), eliminating about 150 minutes of academic time. Parents were given four days notice that this was going to happen.

I think it this was an attempt to encourage community pride. A note came home in my son's folder and an email was circulated encouraging families to support the high school athletes by attending the state championship game mid-afternoon on Friday. But it fell flat on me. And it actually deeply disappointed me. Maybe I'm just no fun.

Learning time is precious and it should be foregone sparingly. I don't find a state high school basketball game to be a convincing reason. I attribute this decision to the seldom questioned athletic culture, alive and well in Wisconsin and America, that seems to take precedence. Why don't we ever cancel classes in this way on Election Day (to allow students to observe the voting process and see their parents participate)? Something like that, for me, rises to a similar level of importance as class time.

Now, a sense of community is important, too. And athletics is part of that fabric. But, in this case, unlike Super Bowl parties or Packers games that take place during most folks' non-working hours and allow families and neighbors to come together and "support the team" (and drink beer and eat brats), I bet that few elementary school students and their families - especially with four days notice - took off a half day of work to attend a basketball game on a Friday afternoon in March. I know that my wife and I did not. We paid $15 extra to the after-school program to have my son for extra hours so we could work. For some less well-off families, this last-minute schedule change may have presented an unwelcome inconvenience and an unfair financial burden.

I think a more preferable decision might have been to encourage families who wished to or had older siblings enrolled in the high school to attend the game and to offer excused absences for their children.

Now, why are some state boys basketball tournament games even played during school hours, forcing the hand of school districts in this way? That's a question for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and its membership -- public and private high schools and middle schools across the Badger State.

Let's get our priorities straight, folks.