My Turn: Sports travel is important to student athletes and their future development

I am reacting to Klas Stolpe’s article and Debbie White’s letter to the editor on Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School’s new policy to eliminate student sports and activities travel. I’d like to share my perspective as a former DHMS coach and parent of DHMS student athlete alumni.

As a DHMS coach, teacher and parent from 1995-2005, my teams frequently traveled on sports trips throughout Southeast Alaska and the Yukon. Those travel experiences were some of the fondest of memories for the students and the highlights of the school year for me. Middle school sports travel built lifelong friendships among staff, students and parents. Some of those students went on to college, graduated and now coach various sports, including varsity level at both Juneau high schools.

The middle school sports travel experience has impacted students’ lives and, by some accounts, helped shape life paths. When I see my old players, we reminisce about the great stories of our ferry, flight and team travel experiences in Southeast Alaska, not the outcome of any particular game. Middle school travel is not just about competition. It provides a valuable, unstructured time with students, which builds coach-teacher-student relationships. Research and experience confirm the importance of relationships between educators and students, particularly at this impressionable age level.

DHMS’ mission goal No.2 is to “Develop and implement a program that creates a safe, inviting and healthy school for all students that encourages maximum attendance and performance.“

Sports travel leads to maximum attendance and performance. Middle school travel involves weekly grade checks, which create significant incentives for the students’ academics and class attendance. Travel with grade expectations makes a difference at this sometimes difficult age level with adolescent teens. Activities and a sense of belonging are critical to middle school student success.

Many adults and elders can attest to the fact that sports and school activities prevented them from making wrong choices at an impressionable age, and it is common to hear that the work ethic that was developed in their youth came from a commitment to a team or activity.

Returning to Juneau in my son’s eighth grade year, I inquired about being a parent volunteer to fundraise for his basketball travel prior to season. I was shocked to learn one Juneau middle school traveled for sports and my son’s did not. I received the same response as Debbie White. I do understand the concern for equity as it relates to economically disadvantaged students, but this has always been addressed with good parent support and fundraising. Southeast Alaska coaches and parents know how overcome travel cost barriers.

Travel for DHMS should be put back on the table for a transparent and open discussion. Parents, coaches and students who feel passionate about this issue support efforts to bring it back. Given the inequity of travel policies between Juneau’s two middle schools, perhaps this discussion belongs with the school board.

• Jones is a retired JSD teacher, grant coordinator, coach and the parent of a 10th grader. She currently works as an assistant professor at UAS Juneau.

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