As Lawrence school district leaders struggle to deal with current budget problems, challenges related to a nearly two-decades-old shortfall persist. Citing inequities, parents and coaches are voicing frustrations about limited athletic options for 7th grade girls this fall.
Last week, district middle schools rolled out their list of sports for the 2021-2022 school year, and community members on social media lamented what they called “limited opportunities” for 7th grade girls. Girls volleyball was offered, but only for 8th graders, leading some to question the equity behind the decision.
Kristin Mallory, a teacher and coach at Southwest Middle School, told her Twitter followers, “Our girls deserve better,” prompting Cynthia Johnson, executive director for inclusion, engagement and belonging, to tweet back, “All students deserve access and opportunities to reach their fullest potential,” and she would “be in touch.”
Mallory met with Johnson on Monday and, in an email to the Times, expressed hope at a quick resolution.
“I have been in conversation with the appropriate administrators and they are aware of the issue and working toward possible solutions,” Mallory said. “At this point I am thrilled that they also see the importance of creating equitable opportunities for ALL of our USD497 students. I appreciate their willingness to have these difficult conversations and objectively reevaluate our current athletic situation.”
The district nixed some middle school sports 19 years ago amid budget cuts. The school board removed 7th grade basketball and volleyball in the 2002-2003 school year. Opportunities then grew slimmer for middle school students unless their families had the time and money to participate in city recreation or club sports.
The Kansas State High School Activities Association regulates 7th to 12th grade sports; for the most part, sports leagues outside the district remain 6th graders’ only option today. Some schools offer 6th graders spots on track and field teams, but they face event limitations by the Kansas State Department of Education. Sports such as swimming and soccer aren’t an option for Lawrence district athletes until high school.
With a goal of adding 7th grade sports back to the middle school menu, the board voted at its June 10, 2019 meeting to reinstate 7th grade basketball for girls and boys and add cross country for 7th and 8th graders in the 2019-2020 school year.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country in spring 2020, sports programs — public and private alike — began to shut down. By fall of 2020, frustrated parents, coaches and athletes were pushing for a reopening of athletics as a way for students to not only stay socially and physically active but to remain competitive for athletic scholarships.
In Lawrence middle schools during the 2020-2021 school year, low turnout in 8th grade football caused some schools to merge their teams and led to discussions of adding back 7th grade football, Julie Boyle, spokesperson for the school district, said in an email Tuesday.
“The cost-neutral proposal was approved; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we could not move forward with it last year. It is being implemented this year instead,” she said.
Boyle said middle school athletic directors also discussed options last year for reinstating volleyball for 7th graders on a cost-neutral basis.
“All four middle schools hired new assistant principal/athletic directors this summer,” she said. “They continue to work on this plan.”