A New Start

April 1, 2019

 

By Sarah Stackhouse

If you ever find yourself in the small, rural border town of Limestone, Maine, you might just spot a penguin. Not the black and white aquatic bird found at the South Pole, but a high school student attending the Maine School of Science and Mathematics (MSSM), where the penguin is our mascot.

The sighting of penguins is a recent occurrence. Traditionally, student-athletes at MSSM participated in sports with the nearby Limestone Community School (LCS) Eagles. It was a typical co-op arrangement that worked fairly well on the surface—except that MSSM student-athletes were few in number.

That all changed a year ago when LCS transferred its high school students to another local school. At MSSM, we had been working on getting more of our students to participate in athletics, so the loss of our co-op partner forced us to examine athletics in a big way.

We were faced with a unique but interesting challenge: How do you start an athletic program practically from scratch at a top academic school that does not have a history of embracing sports? The process allowed us to re-imagine athletics, and today the Penguin athletic program is taking flight in a way that our avian namesakes cannot, making a positive impact on our school community.

While our situation was uncommon, I’m hoping the steps we took to create our new plan can be useful to any athletic department interested in examining its program. Blending tradition with the desires of a changing population is something many schools face at some point.

Our Story

Frequently ranked among the top high schools in the country, MSSM is best known for its rigorous academic program. A public residential magnet school, it offers an advanced curriculum to highly motivated students from all over the state of Maine and beyond.

Parts of our campus had always been shared with LCS, which led to the co-op athletic program. For about two decades, MSSM students competed alongside Limestone students as the LCS/MSSM Eagles.

When I first joined MSSM in 2011 as the Assistant to the Director of Residential Life, a small percentage of the student body participated in athletics. MSSM didn’t have an athletic director and the students were on their own when it came to joining teams and navigating the sports seasons. As I learned more about the school and its programs, I noted this gap and worked to improve communication between the two schools’ administrations to give the students a better experience.

Unofficially, this was the start of my athletic administration career. It wasn’t until the summer of 2015, though, that I became the first Athletic Director to be employed at MSSM. By that time, the dynamics within our shared athletic programs were changing. MSSM students were taking advantage of more athletic offerings, but Limestone was experiencing the opposite.

In the spring of 2015, MSSM was notified that LCS had decided to cut the cross country and track and field programs due to its declining population and financial shortfalls. Although very popular among MSSM students, neither sport was drawing much participation from Limestone students and the two programs were low-hanging fruit when it came to balancing the budget.

As a result, the next year we administered our first athletic teams at MSSM, varsity cross country and track and field for boys and girls. The teams were open to the few LCS students who were interested, but MSSM took over fiscal and organizational responsibilities. Our students still had the opportunity to play soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, and softball with LCS. In addition, we had a handful of individual swimmers and Nordic skiers participating in a co-op arrangement with another local school. We now had 50 percent of our students participating on at least one athletic team.

Then came the news, in the spring of 2017, that LCS high schoolers would be transferred to nearby Caribou High School. This decision, driven by budget shortages, meant the loss of multiple team sports that our students enjoyed.

The leadership at MSSM had some hard decisions to make. Should we continue athletics? If so, how? We suddenly needed to prioritize, weigh our options, and determine the best path to move forward.

A committee was formed, which included administrators, faculty members, residential life staff, a coach, a student-athlete, and me. Our task was to make a recommendation to the executive director on what sports should be offered at MSSM. The decision had to honor the students’ desire to participate in interscholastic athletics while balancing our school’s mission of offering top-notch academic programming.

Information Gathering

Our first step was to compile data on each sport previously offered. This included financial details such as coaching stipends, equipment needs, transportation costs, official/assignor payments, and tournament fees. It was also important to consider the season length, the number of contests required, and the total number of students needed to fill the roster. These data points were crucial to determining the feasibility of each sport.

We also considered the impact our decision could have on the recruitment of new students to our school. The admission office reported that prospective students were identifying athletic offerings as a consideration when they applied to schools.

Next we gathered student input, creating a survey to gauge how important students felt that each athletic team was to the community. Importance was the qualifier instead of participation interest, since the presence of a team impacts students even if they may not want to actually join it. The survey was structured by season and listed each sport that had previously been offered. Students could rate each sport one to five, one indicating that it wasn’t important and MSSM shouldn’t offer it and five meaning that we definitely should.

When the results were tabulated, the message was clear. The students valued interscholastic athletics and felt strongly that most of the current offerings should continue. The final recommendation from the committee was to offer boys’ and girls’ teams in cross country and soccer in the fall, Nordic skiing and swimming in the winter, and volleyball and track and field in the spring. The committee’s recommendation was accepted by the executive director, with a plan to reallocate monies from our school budget to fund the sports.

The decision to discontinue basketball, baseball, and softball was disappointing to some community members, but was understood based on the lack of adequate participation and the fact that the timing of the seasons didn’t fit with our school’s calendar. We have a three-week winter break that would wreak havoc on any attempt to form a basketball schedule and our school year ends in May, with baseball and softball continuing through June in our state.

Restarting Programs

With a clear direction to follow, I was able to start the monumental task of structuring programs so they could mesh with MSSM’s academic schedule. Our students have academic obligations throughout the day, including required evening study hours. It was common for students to miss team practices or refrain from joining teams because they had conflicting classes. When students did travel to an evening competition, they would express their concerns about missing class or study time.

It became obvious that adding athletic teams was not just about budgets and interest. It would require a cultural shift among the staff in order for students to be able to pursue their athletic goals.

One strategy for achieving this was to reduce the scope of some seasons. For example, although the state association allows up to 14 soccer games, our teams only play 10. Our cross country, Nordic skiing, and track and field teams generally only travel to one meet per week. This reduces the overall time commitment and impact on academics.

Another step was to build an activity block into the day when no academic courses would be scheduled so that all students were free to attend a team practice. To accomplish this, we removed all core classes (non-electives) from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. With help from their academic advisors, students can create a class schedule that doesn’t conflict with athletics.

The students define my work. As each season passes and we gather at our awards ceremonies, I always thank the athletes. Without their passion for athletics and their voices during the restructuring process, our current programs might look very different. The fall 2018 season brought us seven all-conference athletes, a 10th place individual finish at the state cross country championship race, and our school’s first sportsmanship banner. I believe that the opportunity to take ownership of our own athletic program was the silver lining in a difficult transition.

 

Sarah Stackhouse is Director of Student Activities, Athletics, and Transportation at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics (MSSM) in Limestone, Maine. She serves on the Maine Principals Association Cross Country Committee and is a member of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and the NIAAA. She can be reached at: [email protected]


Tips for restructuring your program:

- Form a team: choose a small team to help gather data, review options, and form a final recommendation. 

- Develop a problem statement: define your reality, identify the ideal scenario, and list the steps it will take to get from your current state to the ideal. 

- Gather input: survey as many stakeholders as possible (students, faculty, administration, parents, coaches). It's important that everyone feels heard and has a chance to share their ideas and concerns. 

- Dream big, but know your limits: Understand your environment and community. While stakeholders may have many ideas, some will not be reasonable due to facilities, participation numbers, season length vs. school schedule, budgetary constraints, etc. 

- Review your plan annually: Meet with your original team or school administration annually (at a minimum) to review your athletic programs. Talk about what's working well and what needs to be tweaked. 

— Sarah Stackhouse