Students at Tacoma middle schools will have a shot at varsity school sports, including tackle football and girls cross country, when school resumes in September.
“This is an epic day for Tacoma,” said director of student life Jennifer Kubista, who oversees sports programs for Tacoma Public Schools. “It’s been a very long time that we have been wanting to look at revamping middle school athletic programs.”
New funding generated by the sale of advertising on district sports scoreboards and rebates from certain vendors that do business with Tacoma Public Schools is making the enhanced sports program possible, district officials said.
The varsity-sports model will give teams a more competitive edge, Kubista said.
Instead of being grouped by grade level, as students are now, they will be placed on teams based on ability.
When the school district began looking at how to upgrade middle school sports, Kubista said, she and others looked not only at restoring a popular program like football but also at lifetime activities that can boost kids’ health and fitness. That’s why they chose to add cross country. Ensuring equality for girls’ sports also was a factor, she said.
While some surrounding school districts have maintained junior high or middle school football programs, Tacoma has not had one in many years. When the school district switched from seventh-through-ninth-grade junior highs to sixth-through-eighth-grade middle schools in 1987, all sports for middle schools were eliminated at first. Some had been restored over the years.
Middle schools will field varsity, junior varsity and C-teams, similar to the structure used in high schools. Practices for all sports will expand from four days to five days a week. Competition will be between the city’s nine middle schools. The only fee involved will be the $15 Associated Student Body (ASB) fee, Kubista said.
She said adding tackle football and girls cross country will involve students who might not currently be involved. It also will give middle schools a greater sense of pride and identity and better prepare middle school students for high school-level competition, Kubista said.
That’s good news for veteran Tacoma football coaches.
They say bringing the sport back to middle schools means they’ll no longer have to spend time teaching the basics, such as how to wear shoulder pads.
Wilson High School football coach Don Clegg, the city’s longest-tenured football coach who is entering his 25th season, said he expects to see dividends from the middle school program in two to three years. He said the opportunity to play in middle school will encourage more kids to turn out for football when they get to high school.
“By the time kids get to be freshmen and sophomores, if they have not played sports like football earlier, they rarely turn out because they are so self-conscious,” Clegg said.
“If the Tacoma schools are going to be able to compete with other schools who have middle school athletics, we have to have it be on the same level,” said George Nordi, the former football coach at Mount Tahoma High School, who led his team to state titles in 1979 and 1980 before retiring in 1996.
The new middle school program is reason for optimism, Nordi said, adding that district officials should remember that football coaches at any level need proper training.
“This is a contact sport,” he said. “If they are not properly trained, kids could get hurt.”
Kubista said that in addition to building character, teaching sportsmanship and offering other life lessons, school sports can also provide the “carrot” that motivates kids to achieve academically.
To play sports, Tacoma middle school students must have a 2.0 grade-point average, with no failing grades throughout the season. That standard may be waived in certain circumstances, on a case-by-case basis.
“Our middle school principals understand the importance of extracurricular activities that ground students,” Kubista said. “We want to give kids opportunities to find their passion and then run with it.”
The middle school sports season kicks off Sept. 10 with girls cross-country, girls soccer and boys basketball. Football will be played in March and April.
One reason for the football season switch, Kubista said, is to avoid conflicts with both high school football and community-based programs. She said the middle schools expect to draw on coaching talent from high schools as well as from community leagues.
Previously, middle school sports programs were funded by basic education dollars, local levies and ASB fees. In 2009, the Tacoma School Board approved a policy that allowed the school district to find new ways to fund student sports.
Ron Hack, the district’s chief financial officer, said the scoreboards already have generated more than $80,000 this year and are expected to bring in about $20,000 more when all advertising spaces are sold. Other revenue of about $100,000 will come from commissions generated by the sale of student photos, school apparel and beverage sales at school and during after-school events. In exchange for getting exclusive access, vendors pay a percentage of their profits back to the district.
An additional $50,000 comes in the form of rebates the district receives for using debit-like procurement cards to make purchases. Hack said the district has been saving money targeted at middle school sports since the policy change, and that fund now stands at about $300,000. And in 2009, the Tacoma Athletic Commission, a civic group that raises money for sports causes in Pierce County, donated $105,000 to the school district to support middle school sports.
Staff writer Todd Milles contributed to this report.