Education

After-school boycott

As tensions flare over budget cuts and work conditions, extracurricular activities are increasingly under threat

John Schofield September 25 2000
Education

After-school boycott

As tensions flare over budget cuts and work conditions, extracurricular activities are increasingly under threat

John Schofield September 25 2000

After-school boycott

Education

As tensions flare over budget cuts and work conditions, extracurricular activities are increasingly under threat

John Schofield

On typical autumn afternoons, and on into the evening, Saskatoons Mount Royal Collegiate hums with youthful energy. From 3:30 until 9 p.m., five days a week, teams fill the athletic fields and the gym to practise football, volleyball and soccer. Members of the schools 20 clubs meet to enjoy everything from drama to electronics, while the musically inclined play tunes or sing songs. For decades, the entire school has welcomed the new Grade 9 class with pep rallies, a dance and the “freshie” football game. But this fall, life at Mount Royal has been anything but normal. A lingering labour dispute prompted teachers across the province to launch a work-to-rule campaign, and extracurricular activities screeched to a halt. Last Friday, negotiators announced a tentative agreement, much to the relief of both students and staff “We usually start the year with a real bang,” says principal Brian Hilsen. “But take away clubs and sports and it’s very different. It seems very strange.”

For many students, after-school sports and clubs are the very essence of school life. They foster talent, confidence and friendship. And teachers have traditionally shared those experiences, volunteering hours of extra time to make them a reality. But as tensions flare over budget cuts and working conditions, extracurricular activities are increasingly under threat, In Saskatchewan, several schools docked teachers’ pay for joining the job action. And although the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation promised an immediate end to sanctions, union officials say that after-

school clubs and sports remain a growing burden. “This agreement doesn’t change anything,” says Derwin CrozierSmith, the federation’s general secretary. “I just think more teachers are burning out and saying, ‘I can’t do what I have to do in the classroom and extracurricular activities.’ ”

Ontario high-school teachers, contending with a new curriculum and a law requiring them to carry an extra halfcourse a year, have all but abandoned after-school activities amid provincewide contract talks. In return, the province’s

Conservative government has threatened to use legislation to force teachers to supervise clubs and sports. In Toronto, frustrated teachers are threatening a full-scale strike if an agreement is not reached by Oct. 2.

For many students, a prolonged boycott of extracurricular options would virtually ruin the year. In Saskatoon, that frustration bubbled over when 700 students converged on provincial cabinet offices early last week, demanding an end to the dispute. The protest followed a march organized, in part, by Jennifer Margach, a Grade 12 student at Mount Royal and an avid volleyball player. The 17-year-old, who devotes more than 10 hours a week to the sport, feared that her dreams of winning an athletic scholarship would be dashed if teachers continued their job action. She also knows that her achievements outside class could help her get accepted into a competitive university program. “This is a big part of our lives,” says Margach, who plans to study journalism. “And when it’s taken away, we lose out.”

No one denies the fundamental importance of extracurricular activities. Studies consistently show that students who participate in school sports and clubs have better attendance records and higher marks. A 1997 report by the Alberta Schools Athletic Association found that students involved in school sports were less likely to smoke or use drugs, and had lower rates of teen pregnancy. “Instead of walking through the teen years in a bored fashion, their spirit changes,” says Dona Matthews, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a specialist in adolescent development. “They begin to see themselves as more competent, and that translates into them doing better.” For many teachers, the decision to withdraw from afterschool activities is a painful one. Ed Dillon, who has supervised school sports for 21 years, freely admits he enjoys coaching more than teaching. But this month, the business studies teacher at Adam Scott Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Peterborough, Ont., made the difficult decision to hang up his cleats. “I find it very hard to look my students in the eyes and tell them I’m not coaching this year,”

Studies consistently show that students who participate in school sports and clubs have better attendance records and higher marks

says Dillon, 47. “But I also recognize that I just can’t do it.” It all comes down to time. Until this fall, Dillon used one of his four 75-minute periods every day to prepare lessons. Now, to fulfil the terms of the government’s new legislation, he is teaching all four periods. Prep time and marking have been pushed into the evening. As a department head, Dillon wrestles with even more paperwork. On top of that, he notes, class sizes are rising. Add coaching to the mix, and the workweek can top 60 or 70 hours. It makes it difficult for Dillon to spend time with his wife, Karen, and three children, aged 4 to 7. “If the government tells me I have to coach at school, what do they not want me to do?” he asks.

“My marking? See my family? Sleep? Something has to give.” In the United States, many school boards have preserved extracurricular programs by offering to pay for supervision. One Rhode Island school board pays an extra $8,575 to the head football coach, $6,275 to the girls’ basketball coach, and $4,198 to their counterparts overseeing the golf and tennis teams. On the non-athletic side, the adviser to the students’ council is paid an extra $6,275. “To do these jobs, you need

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a certain level of expertise,” says Marsha Berger, deputy director of the educational issues department at the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers. “To expect them to do these add-ons without being compensated is a form of exploitation.”

For the moment, compensation seems unlikely in Canada’s cash-strapped public school system. Nor is it likely that activities will be off-loaded to private organizations, a move that could eliminate access for families of lesser means. A more realistic alternative may be a community-based approach, with parent and teacher volunteers using school facilities to sustain extracurricular activities. Many Canadian parents are already pitching in, raising funds for field trips, sports equipment and a host of other items—including computers and library books. At the elementary level alone, Ontario parents raised an estimated $28 million last year, according to a report by People for Education, a provincial parents’ group. “For elementary students, extracurricular activities are still thriving,” says Annie Kidder, a spokeswoman for the group. “But there is a concern for how long.”

In Ontario, students are wondering whether the drought will continue. While many may not blame their teachers for bowing out, the decision has strained traditionally comfortable relationships, and teachers like Dillon are feeling the sting. Both sides are casting accusing eyes at government, questioning whether afterschool activities can survive in a system so battered by cuts. Teachers still face the threat of being forced by law to supervise after-school activities—a notion that Dillon feels is patently ridiculous. “What type of effort do you get from human beings when you make them do something?” he asks. “Some of our coaches have done it for 30 years— because they love it.” For now, both teachers and students are standing on the sidelines, deprived of one of autumn’s most precious joys. CD