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Why do we play?: School Board hears report on middle and high school activity involvement

BEMIDJI -- At the high school last year, 23 students were in danger of losing their extracurricular privileges due to academic probation. At the middle school, that number was 22.

Of those 45, only four students ended up having to drop from their sport. The others found ways to successfully fulfill their academic requirements to continue on.

"This is why we, as school districts, are in this business. It's about developing lifelong skills and life lessons," said John Pugleasa, a member of the Bemidji School Board. "Kids who are engaged, kids who are involved, they do better."

The School Board, in its regular meeting Monday evening, heard an update on activity participation at the middle and high schools. At the middle school, 78 percent of its students are involved in a sport or activity. At the high school, that figure is about 60 percent.

"I always push very heavily on my sixth grade to get involved. Right away," said Brandon Bjerknes, perhaps delivering his last such activity update on behalf Bemidji Middle School. Bjerknes is currently the middle school's dean of students, a role that includes serving as activities director, but is set to become the assistant principal, effective the 2014-15 school year.

Troy Hendricks, activities director at Bemidji High School, said he supports a new Minnesota State High School League initiative titled Why We Play, a program that reinforces the positive experiences student-athletes acquire through sports by working with coaches and mentors.

"We're trying to help define for our coaches, for our parents, through a number of different resources why we play," Hendricks said. "What's the point? What's the reason for it? Do we automatically become great citizens, better employees, better people because we participate in activities? No I don't think so. I think if we have quality people at the helm working with our kids, then we do."

School Board member Bill Faver alluded to that later, when he praised the work of those coaches, teachers and administrators who worked with the students on academic probation so they could continue in their sports.

"I am just as proud of those ... students who were at risk and stayed with the program. Thank you for your efforts," Faver said.

The Why We Play program is gaining traction throughout the state. The high school league is having a Why We Play conference for coaches next week and Hendricks said he will present on that topic at the fall player-parent meeting for BHS.

"It can't just stop at the high school coaches, it needs to go to the youth coaches, it needs to go to the parents," Hendricks said.

Looking at the numbers

At the middle school last year, 491 students took part in fall activities, 467 in winter activities, 478 in spring activities and 98 in yearlong activities. (Those figures are not unduplicated, so the same student may be counted multiple times.)

The activities drawing the most interest at BMS right now are track, which had 184 participants, and Show Choir, with 131.

At the high school, there were 794 students -- 393 boys and 382 girls -- who took participated in an extracurricular activity. Total participants (not unduplicated) was reported to be 1,129, but Hendricks was not yet confident in that figure and is still obtaining more information.