By May S. Ruiz
Students in the Arcadia Unified School District (AUSD) enjoy a certain cachet when conversations turn to school reputations and student performance. Few in the San Gabriel Valley would not have heard of the district’s prowess. Its high school is a renowned powerhouse – in academics, music, and performing arts. The district’s sports teams, however, while competitive in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), have not won as many titles as its marching band. But that is about to change.
Jeffrey Wilson, assistant superintendent for educational services, declares “We are committed to having our athletic department mirror the success of our schools’ academics and performing arts. We are determined to develop the whole the child, and that includes strengthening our athletic program.”
AUSD’s middle school sports program was dismantled in1995 when the district transitioned junior high to the middle school model, made up of sixth, seventh and eighth grades. When this happened, the focus veered heavily towards academics. What were formerly competitive teams effectively became more recreational squads that played in intramurals.
As Laurie McQuaid, student services coordinator, puts it, “There was also a shift in education philosophy at the time that by reducing competition students would have an opportunity to grow in other ways. The belief was that it’s in middle school where kids could identify their passion. But when we did this we essentially disregarded students who had an enthusiasm for athletics and their chance to develop that. We encouraged our youth to excel in academics, performing arts, and marching band, and provided all the programs towards that pursuit. Why shouldn’t we do the same for sports-minded students?”
According to Ryan Foran, AUSD public information officer, two years ago the district formed a Sports Enhancement Committee made up of all three middle school principals (Dr. Daniel Hacking of Dana, Dr. Tom Bruce of First Avenue, and Benjamin Acker of Foothills), Scott Bramley, coach and director of technology and information services, Wilson, several high school coaches and parent boosters, and himself. They met regularly to discuss ways to make their athletics as excellent as their academics and one of the results was the expansion of the middle school sports offerings.
“Parents couldn’t be more thrilled,” Foran says. “As much as they love the district, they had to find other places for their kids to play basketball or football. Now we’re offering competitive sports on campus and feedback has been 100 percent positive. We started with basketball because it was too late for football. We organized it in November 2015, and on the 3rd of December, First Avenue faced off with Dana Middle School for the first time in two decades. The gym was packed; students were so excited to be playing their buddies three blocks away. Now they play each other and their parents get to hang out. It’s school spirit and it’s community spirit.”
Ms. McQuaid relates the excitement on that momentous occasion, “There was a traffic jam in the parking lot and on the street. Parents couldn’t get to the sidewalk to pick up their kids after the game. There was so much excitement.”
This energy was apparent when all the middle school principals, coaches, and other school administrators sat down recently to describe how AUSD will roll out their athletic program. They are holding tryouts for boys’ and girls’ soccer, girls’ softball, and boys’ volleyball to compete this year. Next year, they will be fielding teams in football and girls’ volleyball. And they will be participating in the 210 League, made up of teams from Monrovia, Duarte, Temple City, South Pasadena, and La Canada.
Wilson sums up AUSD’s objective, “We have since discovered that some competition is healthy and eliminating it didn’t serve our students well. The vision of the district is to address the developmental and cognitive needs of the whole child and athletics play a crucial role. We want to hone our students’ physical skills in middle school so they are prepared for high school competitive teams. A strong sports offering is the logical complement to our existing outstanding high school programs in academics, drama, music, and marching band. All these put together will help in the transition to high school which will prepare them for college and beyond.”
“We have a very active high school booster group that supports our athletics program. Now we are hoping to develop one in middle school to raise money and help with transportation. We have allocated a certain amount of money from our Local Control Accountability Plan to fund sports and we’re using some of that to pay for school or charter buses. A booster group can help in defraying the expense. And the more parents are involved, the better the programs are. It is parents who make our programs so excellent,” Wilson explains.
Bramley summarizes it succinctly, “We work and live in a community that supports and appreciates all our school accomplishments. And while we have a good high school athletic program, we want it to be excellent.” And who can argue with that?