Local Middle School Students Team Up for Sports—and Much More
By Laura Shovan
It’s more than a game. A growing number of area middle schools are finding out the many benefits of engaging their students in school sports teams.
LaTanya Robinson says that each of her teams is unique. Robinson is the girls’ basketball coach at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore City, which sponsors several competitive sports teams. One of Robinson’s most memorable groups included players whose parents were terminally ill.
“It was a good thing that they could all be together and lean on each other, and we were able to get them counseling,” recalls Robinson. “Somebody their own age knew exactly their experience.”
Competitive sports have long been the territory of high schools. However, middle schools are finding there are benefits to sponsoring sports teams of their own. Middle schools sports range from fun leagues to competitive teams. Whether it’s ping-pong or basketball, sports can motivate students to improve attendance, behavior and academic performance. And sometimes, as Robinson has found, players learn as much about being a good friend as they do about being a good athlete.
Out In the Field
Unlike Baltimore City, the Harford County Public School system does not offer competitive sports for middle schoolers. Instead, the county chooses to get its kids—athletic or not—active through fun leagues and intramural games.
Ginny Popillek, supervisor of Elementary and Middle School Physical Education and Health Education in Harford County, says her district’s middle school sports program is, “under the true philosophy of intramurals.”
In other words, intramural sports, which are limited to players or teams from a single school and tend to be less competitive than interscholastic leagues.
Popillek points out that kids who play competitive sports tend to be active already. Harford County Schools’ mission is to find a way to get inactive middle-schoolers—who might feel intimidated by competition—involved in sports.
Middle schools in Harford County offer sports such as ping-pong, badminton and volleyball several times a week. Popillek views these as “lifetime” sports, in keeping with Harford’s vision of sports involvement as a way of staying healthy.
Baltimore County middle schools also have a sports program that downplays competition. But providing the trappings of a traditional league—teams, uniforms and games against other schools—have given educators leverage with kids who participate.
Ten years ago, when the district began a basketball league for eighth graders, intramural teams for the lower grades helped prepare them for interscholastic play.
“It was something to motivate them to come to school, get good grades and promote self-esteem and all the behavior objectives that we expect from all of our students,” says Ron Belinko, coordinator of Athletics for Baltimore County Public Schools.
The league has grown to 22 schools. Each team plays about 10 weekly games, but the players must adhere to strict rules.
“You must not be a behavior problem at school, [you must] attend school regularly, maintain passing grades,” Belinko explains. “What happens is that these youngsters are so excited… if a student does misbehave in school… then the privilege of participating on the team will be denied to that student.”
The program offers other benefits. Belinko notes that many students are getting the opportunity to go to the private schools that recruit players.
With their teams watched by recruiters, Baltimore County administrators have to control how competitive the league becomes. That’s why there is no championship game and they accept any child who wants to play.
“We do not discourage any youngsters from playing for the team,” Belinko says. Excluding kids from the team or from playing time, he adds, would not build their self-esteem.
To keep the focus on helping at-risk students, notes Belinko, the coaches should be teachers, just as they are with high school sports teams.
He explains that having most of the coaches in the school building helps to maintain the total discipline of the school, adding that the players know that someone cares about them and monitors their behavior and school success.
Playing in the City
Some middle school sports leagues, however, do not shy away from competition. Baltimore City schools have a long-standing program that began with soccer.
Gladis Nichols, a physical education teacher at Chinquapin Middle School, coached soccer and volleyball until last year.
She says that when the program began nearly 20 years ago, “There were no activities that gave middle school students an opportunity to get engaged in sports.”
A soccer league in Baltimore was being phased out, as were Chinquapin’s intramural sports. The school joined a small pilot soccer league, funded by the Abell Foundation and the City Parks program.
Nichols says, “It allowed kids to be engaged in programs at the school, something that was positive where they wouldn’t get into trouble [because they didn’t have] anything to do after school.”
The Baltimore City public school system now offers soccer, softball, lacrosse, volleyball and basketball at some middle schools. And, like Baltimore County, the city program makes playing on the teams a privilege for students.
“In order to participate, [the students] have to be passing; they have to have good attendance,” says Nichols.
LaTanya Robinson, who has coached at Booker T. Washington Middle School for eight years, says, “There seemed to be things for the young men in the area to do, and basically nothing for the young ladies to do—no outlet. That’s why I got involved… to give the girls some type of social outlet.”
Robinson also notes that players “have to achieve a minimum of at least an 80 percent [or a B average] in each class in order to participate. By coming to school regularly, their academic success has increased.”
She also sees an increase in self-esteem among players.
“Many of the young ladies feel they’re a part of something, because it’s not just necessarily about basketball, even though that’s the piece that [has brought] us all together,” she says.
Because of the focus on self-esteem and character-building, many middle school coaches in Baltimore City schools avoid try-outs.
“I never ever turned down any kid,” says Nichols. “If you came out, you were certainly going to get in the game at some point, because parents came out and they wanted to see their child engaged in the game.”
But the city middle school leagues do hold championship tournaments.
“It’s gotten very competitive. Initially, when I got in, if we [learned] some skills along the way—great. Now, everybody wants that big trophy at the end,” admits Robinson.
Nevertheless, Robinson tries to keep her team focused on improvement.
“Everybody wants to win,” she adds. “We, of course, enjoy every day along the way. We just try and develop as a team.”
Being part of Booker T. Washington’s team is a big commitment for the middle schoolers. The girls practice three days a week and play 10 to 14 games in a season.
“The feedback that I have received has been great,” notes Robinson. “The thing that I’m most proud of is that at least 85 percent of the young ladies have gone on to citywide high schools in Baltimore—and that is one of the main goals, that they have a choice in their education.”
Whether the aim is to improve the general health of all students or to give a boost to at-risk kids, middle schools are finding that sports can be a valuable teaching tool.
Providing athletic programs for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders can lead to a lifetime love of sports, Nichols points out. Some of her soccer players have gone on to high school championship teams. And, when these players return to visit her, Nichols says, “They came back to let me know that the foundation was laid at [the middle school] level.” BC