Marchelo Bresciani found himself running, literally and figuratively.
Last year, when he was 13, he joined the track team at Shea Middle School in north Phoenix, and suddenly found himself running ahead of the pack in track meets against other middle schools. By the end of the school year, he was running the mile in 5:06, which set a school record. He finished sixth in the state, even though most of his competition was a year older. He felt doggone good about it, and he set his sights on a state championship when he was in eighth grade.
But this year, the Paradise Valley Unified School District decided to discontinue all interscholastic sports at the middle school level, leaving Marchelo to run alone. His parents were annoyed.
"It ticks me off," says his father, Chris, "especially with kids going through adolescence. They find something they do well at and it makes them feel good, and then, 'Sorry, we can't do it anymore.'"
The district's volleyball, basketball, baseball, softball, wrestling and track teams were all cut as a cost-cutting measure, funneling all sports-minded kids into less competitive intramural programs.
Paradise Valley is a relatively well-off district straddling northeast Phoenix and northwest Scottsdale. Its overall annual budget, including local, state and federal monies, runs well more than $132 million. But last fall, with costs rising and funds drying up, the district poked and prodded and pared away $3.5 million worth of programs.
Interschool sports was perhaps the most visible of the cuts, but not the only one that should worry parents. Physical education and art and music and library and computer services were cut back, if not cut away, in the elementary schools, and middle school and high school students faced larger classes with fewer honors and special education options.
The middle school sports programs account for just $75,000 worth of savings, or about $15,000 per school, a figure that seems tiny compared to its impact.
"I run through $70,000 just for my school," says Joe Stetser, athletic director at North Canyon High School, and he points out that that figure doesn't even include another $100,000-plus paid in stipends to his 58 coaches.
"Between how little money the middle schools took and how little money they cut, I don't really think they saved much at all," Stetser says.
Though competitive sports have been a traditional part of public schooling, not all educators feel that they are appropriate for the fragile and developing egos of middle schoolers.
"Philosophically, I don't think that's what we need to be in the business of doing with 12- and 13-year-old kids," says Jim Lee, principal at Sunrise Middle School in Scottsdale, one of the schools affected by the cuts. "What we're trying to look at is what's the best quality program we can provide for all kids. And I'm going to put emphasis on the term 'all kids.'"
Lee says the district has long considered shifting middle school athletics to "a comprehensive intramural program where kids can participate, in lieu of an interscholastic program where you have a limited number of student participants. But it was never considered a viable option until we got into more challenging times financially at district levels."
School coaches, however, balk at any district characterizations that "limited" numbers played interschool sports. It was the district, after all, that limited the baseball, softball and basketball teams to 15 students each and that combined separate seventh- and eighth-grade teams into a single school team.
"We always had team managers and scorekeepers and carried about 25 kids that were helping with the team," says Brent Engelman, a teacher and coach at Desert Shadows Middle School. "Our track teams had about 120 kids altogether. I think we had about 40 in wrestling. But there's a major point that everyone's missing here: When we played Sunrise [Middle School], we probably had three quarters of the student body here in the gym watching the game. We'd have 48 percent of the student population at basketball games, more for big games, and that didn't count the students watching the girls' softball games at the same time. It's sports, it's the social aspect. The kids were involved in the school, which builds pride and community relationships. And the parents knew where the kids were."
Furthermore, Engelman feels that because his school lies close to border of the Scottsdale school district, some students have switched districts to continue playing sports.
Some teachers suggest that the switch to noncompetitive and nonthreatening intramural sports is another example of the "dumbing down" of public education. Because so much importance is placed on making sure that even the slowest students succeed, teachers find themselves teaching only to the lowest levels, while the brighter students fall asleep. Similarly, the switch to intramurals only deprives the athletic students a chance to develop their physical talents.
"There is a totally different intensity in the programs, and the desired outcome is different," says Tim Evans, athletic director at Vista Verde Middle School. "One of them is a recreational situation which the kids definitely need, because it's occupying them and keeping them out of trouble. I understand that. But to take the other program down with it, I don't think that was a wise decision."
Off the record, coaches and teachers suggest that a big motivation for cutting sports programs has to do with their inconveniences. Buildings must stay open longer to accommodate the teams, and principals have to deal with irate parents wondering why Junior didn't make the team.
Teachers were paid an extra $1,200 to $1,700 to coach teams. Now they receive about a third of that amount to supervise intramurals.
"We're still here four or five nights a week," says Engelman. "We're doing less coaching, but I don't think we're getting the output."
School administrators are quick to point out that the Paradise Valley area has numerous private youth sports programs--soccer, softball, baseball and basketball programs for their athletically inclined students. However, some of those private programs are very pricey--one competitive soccer league, for example, charges upward of $600 in fees, which places it out of reach for lower-income families. And they require a lot of parents' time for transportation to and from games and practices, often in the middle of the workday.
"They're saving $75,000," says Engelman. "I think within the next few years, there are going to be more challenges because what are children going to do between 2:30 and 6 when their parents are still working? They're going to get in trouble. They're junior highers."
Less important, perhaps, the high school coaches wonder what they'll be facing when these inexperienced youngsters come out for high school teams.
North Canyon High School has decided to step up its open gym programs, which allow younger students to work out with the high school teams during the off-season, and to allow the middle school intramural teams to play exhibition games during halftimes at the high school games.
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Joe Stetser, the North Canyon athletic director, says he had enough trouble keeping track of his high school athletes, but that since the middle schoolers are denied a competitive program, "we've got to make things available to them. The coaches in the middle schools were getting paid. Now my coaches are doing this basically for free."
James Jurs, superintendent of the Paradise Valley district, acknowledges all of the emotional and philosophical sides of the debate and then cuts to the bottom line.
"If it had not been for the budget resource allocation review process that we went through in the 1994-95 school year, the change would not have happened," he says.
Jurs puts the blame at the State Capitol.
"Slowly but surely in this state, the Legislature is starving public education to the point where these kinds of very unlikely decisions need to be made.