Pride is All You Need

January 29, 2015
Four years ago, the athletic program at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Fla., was struggling in just about every way. Today it is thriving, thanks to the creativity, resourcefulness, and spirit of its athletic director.
By Dr. Janet Rasmussen

Janet Rasmussen, EdD, CAA, has been Athletic Director at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Fla., since 2010. Previously, she was an adjunct instructor with the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. She can be reached at: [email protected].

"It's great to be a Pioneer! I said, it's great to be a Pioneer!" These words have been chanted by thousands of students since Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Fla., opened its doors in 1959. But sometimes, they've been chanted much louder than other times.

Oak Ridge has a proud history, with alumni that include Olympic and professional athletes, prominent politicians, and successful doctors and business leaders. The track and field program has won 14 state titles, and the Pioneer Marching Band is well-known for its tradition of excellence.

When I became Athletic Director in 2010, that history was hiding in deep corners of the school. Student-athletes were not aware they were following in the footsteps of successful Oak Ridge alumni, and morale was low. Few fans attended athletic events, equipment and uniforms were sorely lacking and outdated (some were more than 10 years old), and we were not fielding teams in all state-sanctioned sports.

In addition, Oak Ridge is a Title I school, with over 90 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch. Our student-athletes' families cannot afford to purchase athletic equipment for their children, let alone donate to a booster club fundraiser.

My challenge was to bring pride and success back to Oak Ridge athletics without having access to typical revenue streams. We have been successful using a multipronged strategy that pairs uncovering funding in new places with restoring enthusiasm. With a little creativity, we've found that the two can easily go hand-in-hand. And the decibel meter when our students shout, "It's great to be a Pioneer!" is now hitting new highs.

When I first arrived at Oak Ridge, I took an assessment of the athletic program's most pressing needs and determined that funding should top the list. Coaches were spending too much time worrying about how to pay for the necessary items their athletes could not afford, and some teams had been discontinued due to a lack of funding. But without any excitement or momentum for Pioneer athletics at that point, we were not in a position to tap into sponsorships or donations.

Instead, I decided to apply for grants, hoping that if we could get some initial money coming in, it would provide the small boost we needed to start to bring school spirit back. I researched available grants and applied for the ones I thought we had a shot at landing. I was shocked when I got a phone call notifying me that Oak Ridge had won a $25,000 Nike Gamechanger grant. For our school, that amount of money really was a game changer.

With the funds, our boys' and girls' basketball programs were able to purchase new shoes and uniforms. Baseball, softball, and boys' volleyball could finally have full sets of uniforms for the j.v. and varsity programs. And we were able to add sports programs, including golf, tennis, and swimming.

Just as exciting, the Nike grant allowed our basketball programs to be recognized at a community awards ceremony. There, our boys' and girls' teams also had the opportunity to meet Rashard Lewis, who was playing for the Orlando Magic at the time.

New uniforms and a little public recognition was just the push we needed, and it seemed as if a new sense of school pride was blossoming over the athletic department. My coaches' competitive spirits were high, and the teams began performing well on and off the court and field.

We secured additional funds through a contest run by a local athletic apparel company, which offered the chance to win brand-new football uniforms valued at more than $20,000. The first step in the contest was to submit an essay about why your squad needed the apparel. Looking at our old, torn jerseys, I knew that if we could win, our student-athletes would feel more pride when taking the field. The additional uniforms would also allow us to field a freshman team, which Oak Ridge had not had in years. I highlighted this in the essay, and we were selected as one of the finalists.

To get the uniforms, however, we still needed to win an online voting contest. By spreading the word through flyers, e-mails, Facebook, and announcements, our students, faculty, and community became passionate and dedicated to this cause.

During the contest's time period, it was common to hear students and faculty asking one another if they had voted that day. Because many of our students do not have computers at home, we opened up the school's media center on the weekends and invited students to stop in and vote. The experience helped establish teamwork among the different sports programs, as they pushed each other toward a common goal.

Winning the contest and receiving the new football uniforms was a huge morale boost for the entire school. It also showed our student-athletes how working together could bring great rewards. We entered again the following year and won both boys' and girls' basketball uniforms.

In both instances, it was absolutely incredible to see the student-athletes' faces when the apparel company came to the school to unveil the new uniforms. When we introduced both the football and basketball uniforms, we had a pep rally and the student body attended.

There were two important by-products of winning and celebrating the new uniforms. The first was that, armed with a new sense of pride, students began to increase their attendance at athletic events. To get even more students and faculty in the stands, I came up with some additional incentives.

One was a yearlong athletic pass, which allowed students entrance into all home games in all sports for one low price. The second was a special promotion called "Bring Your Teacher." Any student who brought a teacher to a game also got in for free.

The second result of winning both uniform contests was increased media attention for our school. When we won the football uniforms, we were awarded the prize during a press conference, which led to news stories and the community taking notice of Oak Ridge.

At the same time, I had been encouraging our coaches to reach out to the local media after each competition and anytime they had news to share regarding our teams. This has resulted in stories on individual Oak Ridge athletes who have overcome tremendous odds, as well as coaches who are leading their teams to success, which has helped raise our profile.

With some pride and positive news coverage returning, we had a foundation in place to then reach out to those in the community who could help us build the first floor. The initial group I turned to was our alumni. I wanted to share our teams' successes, let them know about each program's specific needs, and ask them to become a part of our current Oak Ridge family.

To do this, I attended several class reunions, getting up on stage to invite the alumni to Oak Ridge athletic events and speaking one-on-one with anyone who would listen. I also met with groups of alumni to give tours of our expanded and remodeled campus, which opened in 2011. Many alumni responded by not only wanting to support the athletic department but to be mentors to our student-athletes.

In addition, I found ways to welcome the alumni to our contests. They have a seating section reserved at games and are able to purchase annual athletic passes at a discounted price. They receive a special ID badge that shows their picture and the year they graduated from Oak Ridge. During bigger athletic events, such as district tournaments, alumni enjoy tailgating in a special section prior to the game. As a result of our efforts, they have become our most vocal fans over the last few years, and we can always count on them to provide support for our teams.

Besides having their presence at games, I often ask alumni to speak with our student-athletes, either informally or with a full team. They talk about their past experiences with Oak Ridge coaches and teachers or discuss opportunities available after graduating from Oak Ridge. This has been a great motivator for our students and also reinforces to the alumni that we recognize them for their past and present achievements, which stokes their passion for our current athletic program. Before long, checks from alumni wanting to help our program started trickling in.

One more large undertaking with alumni has been important. Last year, we had our very first Oak Ridge Athletic Hall of Fame ceremony, recognizing those who achieved greatness while participating in Pioneer athletics. To help our students see the incredible achievements of their predecessors, we had the induction ceremony in the gym, where all students were able to attend.

Each inductee shared their story, and many students were inspired by their words. Most were not aware that Oak Ridge has had two Olympians who hold world records or that so many graduates have gone on to play professional football, basketball, and baseball. Our second Hall of Fame ceremony will be held later this year.

The attention our athletic department was beginning to receive from the media and alumni then allowed us to tap into larger revenue sources. I have spent the last few years soliciting sponsorships for our athletic program, with growing success.

Potential sponsors choose from different packages, including banners for our gyms and fields or advertising in our football program. Depending on their package, they may also receive reserved seats at contests and/or recognition through announcements during games and at year-end banquets. Many of my coaches get involved with helping to find sponsors.

Local businesses are also becoming more involved in our annual athletics golf fundraiser. Over the past few years, local car dealerships have given away cars for golfers who make a hole in one, and a helicopter owner has donated his services to conduct a helicopter drop. Our first golf outing generated $3,500, but we've since grown the event and have a goal of securing $10,000 this year.

Another way businesses are becoming involved is by donating food and equipment for our athletes. Our basketball coaches have worked hard to establish relationships with different vendors and received shoes and gear for every member of the team this past year. Restaurants have donated fruit and full pregame meals for our athletes. Some have even offered wonderful meals for our athletic golf fundraiser and head coaches meetings. A local eyewear provider is partnering with us to give out free goggles for our athletes who need to wear glasses during competitions. I am grateful for their generosity and love to market their businesses with everyone I meet.

While the new money brought in is critical, we have also secured community spirit through these projects. By partnering with local businesses, our fan base has increased, and more people are aware of the exciting achievements of our athletes.

Along with increasing funding and pride in our athletic department, I have also focused on enhancing the student-athlete experience. That began with academics. Many of our students are first-generation Americans and require help in language acquisition in addition to their regular classes.

To address this, I set up a mandatory study hall for in-season student-athletes, in which my head coaches are the stars and mentors. They get their teams together and focus on studies each day, encouraging their athletes' academic performance. In addition, the coaches turn in weekly progress reports on the student-athletes, which keeps me aware of how our student-athletes are performing in the classroom. This has helped boost students' grades.

Out of season, student-athletes are expected to sign up for Oak Ridge's school-wide afternoon tutoring program, which provides snacks and bus rides home each day. This program also provides role models for our athletes through its teachers and tutors.

To supplement study hall and tutoring, I was able to get a grant for an academic motivational program called Scholar-Baller, which uses popular culture to bridge the gap between academics and athletics. The curriculum incorporates role models from the entertainment and professional sports industries. It conveys to the student-athletes the importance of perseverance and communication, as well as providing tools for overcoming stereotypes.

Beyond academics, I am in the process of implementing a student-athlete leadership team. We have selected two students from each squad, and we are beginning to build a core group. These future leaders will be exposed to the field of sport business through discussions, guest speakers, and working events. Having a group of players share in the management of the athletic program increases school pride, directly influencing our student-athletes' success and helping them mature and prepare for their future after high school.

One more important component I feel helps our student-athletes grow is community service. Although they frequently don't have the means to pay for a lot of things, that doesn't mean they can't give back to their community. One recent project the student-athletes have been involved in is building a playground for neighborhood children. With a little research, I found a company that would partner with us to construct a playground. Our athletes were involved in the planning and installation of the equipment, and they feel great pride in their accomplishment.

Last but certainly not least is incorporating sportsmanship into the athletic program. We talk to our athletes a lot about sportsmanship and how to make visiting teams feel welcome. One specific event that has really helped get this message across is our football team's spaghetti dinner, which they share with their opponents before our spring game. We have since invited the community to share in this meal and pair it with a silent auction to further bring in program funding.

We have a great coaching staff here at Oak Ridge, who all work hard to be successful on the field as well as role models off of it. My time is spent primarily on taking things off their plates, and that has helped them do their jobs even better. We would not have been able to accomplish all that we have without such a dedicated group of coaches at Oak Ridge.

In order to give my coaches easily accessible information at all times, I have created an online handbook. Forms they frequently need as well as detailed information on coaching requirements are located on the site.

Also, I encourage my coaches to get endorsed, which entails participation in a set of professional development and educational courses that help increase their coaching repertoire. This helps coaches obtain higher pay and assists them in gaining a richer and more valuable set of tools to draw upon when working with student-athletes.

To keep them motivated, I have had guest speakers during coaches meetings, ranging from local business leaders, YMCA program coordinators, university professors, to professional athletes. They typically speak about leadership, working with kids, or something specific to coaching. The speakers give perspective to my coaches on what techniques they can use to increase motivation, safety, and success in their programs.

For example, at our next coaches meeting, the developer of an academic motivational program will speak, sharing his own personal experience as a college athlete and what helped prepare him for success. Another guest speaker, a superintendent at a large inner-city school district in California, will talk about ways to help our student-athletes overcome their many challenges. Lastly, a member of the Orlando Magic will share what helped him prepare for the highest level in sport.

I think it's important to empower our coaches so they can develop their own strategies and plans for their programs. Each coach has the talent to awaken their student-athletes' athletic and academic potential. By allowing them the freedom to do so, it has helped teams become tight-knit and supportive groups.

Along with having a great coaching staff to work with, I'm fortunate to have colleagues across the state who I can tap into for ideas and administrators here at Oak Ridge who work hard to improve the entire school. Our administrators are excited to attend games and become solid fans for our student-athletes to depend upon. They even wear team jerseys to athletic contests to share how proud they are of our squads. In addition, many Oak Ridge faculty members and administrators are so passionate about helping our students that they "adopt" an athlete and feed them dinner before each competition.

And our alumni have come through like knights in shining armor. They have developed their own fundraisers and formed a booster club to outline ways that they can help Oak Ridge financially.

As a result of all of this financial and moral support, our teams have responded with success on the fields and courts. Our boys' basketball and football teams advanced to the regional semifinals this year, and our girls' flag football team is currently ranked 24th in Florida, which is a big accomplishment for our program, as many of the players had never participated in athletics prior to attending Oak Ridge. Our three-year-old tennis program is dominating district opponents, and the girls' track and field team is poised to win districts again this year.

Oak Ridge has been experiencing a renaissance on and off the field, and I am grateful to have the chance to play a part in it. It has been an amazing experience to watch the growth of a proud athletic program, and I cannot wait to see all of the great achievements our student-athletes will have in the future.

Sidebar: A GREAT JOB
Becoming the athletic director at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Fla., has been incredibly meaningful to me. When I began in the position in 2010, I had just completed my doctorate in education and had spent time researching ways to help motivate student-athletes academically, particularly minority groups. As Oak Ridge has a minority student population of more than 90 percent, it feels great to incorporate programs and strategies to help the student-athletes achieve success.

Nothing is more touching than witnessing our student-athletes and their proud families on signing day. My coaches work hard to help their players receive opportunities to attend college, and many student-athletes are the first ones in their families to ever go. Being able to hug our former athletes when they come back to visit and listening to them share their college experiences with current players is motivation for me to continue to help all of our student-athletes achieve success upon graduation.

On a daily basis, I love connecting with our student-athletes by watching their practices and games and sitting down and speaking with them about their goals. As so much of my time is spent at the school, my husband and son join me at contests and pregame meals and have become a part of the Oak Ridge family.

There are many rewards that come from being the athletic director at a school like Oak Ridge. I have an extended family here, from administrators to coaches to teachers to, of course, the students, which makes it easy to come to work each day.
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