We typically think of band, the chess club, drama club, debate team, dance, cheerleading, garden club, “It’s Academic” and similar programs as “extras,” like the colorful sprinkles on top of a sundae. But that doesn’t do justice to the role they play in the overall education and development of our students. Actually, they are essential curriculars.
And speaking of essential: so are the many teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, school social workers, education support professionals and paraprofessionals who do double-duty, even giving up precious time on the weekends, to ensure these activities are available.
The emphasis on testing during the years of No Child Left Behind took away time and energy from a host of subjects and activities. It robbed too many students of the opportunity to “just be content with enjoying school.”
In the test-crazed environment NCLB sparked, extracurriculars took a back seat. Some even thought of them mostly as résumé-builders for an impressive college application. But with the Every Student Succeeds Act, we have the chance to reclaim their place in education. As the author Robert Putnam said in an interview with NEA Today, they have an important place in students’ overall development. Without them, a pathway to growth and discovery is lost.
“We know from the evidence that extracurricular activities foster what are often called ‘soft skills,’ things like teamwork, grit, communication and so on. These are skills that are hugely important for success in life,” Putnam, author of books including Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, said. “That’s causation—if you participate in, for example, sports, and you learn those skills, you will in fact be more attractive to employers. … And of course when you take way these opportunities, students become disengaged from school and drop out.”
Sports programs are in a different league; they usually get lots of support. A host of professional athletes and Olympians got their start in PE and on school teams. But there’s more to activities than athletics.
Future Farmers of America, Mathletes, Model U.N, the aeronautics, robotics, graphic design, photography, manga and Harry Potter clubs, student government associations and others can help students figure out what they enjoy.
Moreover, they can give students information about what they are good at and point the way to educational choices and future careers.
That’s what happened to Kent Boyd, a runner-up in the seventh season of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” competition, who started out in high school musical productions back home in Botkins, Ohio. He’s continued his acting and dancing career and even started a clothing line, Sugar and Bruno.
Participating in the debate club can channel a student’s more challenging attributes (such as a propensity to argue a point ad nauseam) and help her discover the advocate within. Being in the baking club can provide the foundation for a career in culinary arts. Leading the reading group or spoken-word poetry club, or reporting for the school paper, can nurture a budding writer.
Some families have the wherewithal to provide a host of experiences, from soccer to dance to stamp-collecting. But many can’t afford to shell out $50 an hour for clarinet lessons, or $200 a month for dance. A majority of students in today’s public schools come from low-income families that struggle to make ends meet, let alone finance activities. The programs in our schools are crucial for them. They are an important part of the inspiring, well-rounded experience that every child deserves, regardless of ZIP code.
The National Federation of State High School Associations doesn’t even use the word “extracurricular” to describe these activities.
In “The Case for High School Activities,” the federation says this: “At a cost of only 1 to 3 percent … of an overall school’s budget, high school activity programs are one of today’s best bargains. It is in these vital programs—sports, music, speech, theater, debate—where young people learn lifelong lessons that complement the academic lessons taught in the classroom. From a cost standpoint, activity programs are an exceptional bargain when matched against the overall school district’s education budget.”
Students in these programs—whether third-graders or high school seniors—tend to do better in school, set goals for themselves and have a sense of belonging in the school community.
As for the committed school staff members who lead these activities, well they’re pretty amazing. It takes someone special to give everything they have to students during the hectic school day, and then consistently and dependably give even more after the last bell. But then, that sums up most NEA members.
If you’re among the many people who not only understand the importance of “essential curriculars,” but also go out of your way to support and provide them, thank you. Our students’ educational experiences are richer because of you.