Local schools are giving a thumbs up to a new state ruling that allows sixth-graders to play school sports.
In August, the state decreed that students in the sixth grade could play any sport except for football, because of concerns about the threat of injury. The decision was left to each of the 115 school districts across the state whether or not to choose if it wanted to let the sixth-graders play.
Local officials said that Stokes County was quick to agree because of the boost it could give to its small pool of athletes. That left some in Surry County feeling like they had to comply in order to keep pace with Stokes.
The Mount Airy Board of Education was cautiously optimistic. While the measure seemed like a positive, school board members wondered about any potential downside — such as a seventh-grader getting cut from a team to make room for a talented sixth-grader.
By the time the ruling came down, fall sports had begun practicing, noted Jason Dorsett, Mount Airy City Schools chief operations officer. It didn’t seem right to punish a child who had been working hard in practices already.
Dorsett said he held a meeting with both middle school and high school coaches one afternoon to discuss the issue. There was unanimous support for allowing the kids to play, he said.
And it wasn’t just about bolstering sports teams, he added. Students who want to play sports have to attend class, keep their grades up and not have any discipline issues — all of which are good things for the child.
One stipulation that came out of the meeting was that no player from the seventh and eighth grades be cut in the fall to make room for the younger students.
Tom Hemmings, athletic director for Surry County Schools, said it was a smooth transition considering the short notice before the fall seasons started. The coaches were pleased, and Hemmings didn’t hear a single negative from any coach or school official.
The number of sixth-graders going out for sports was actually pretty small, compared to the upper grades. The four middle schools in the county district had 328 total athletes for the fall, and just 37 were from the sixth grade. There were 167 seventh-graders and 167 eighth-graders.
That could have been because many parents didn’t know about the rule change, Hemmings suggested. Another school official said it could be because sixth-graders might still be playing in youth leagues like at the Armfield Civic Center in Pilot Mountain.
Very few of these younger students were good enough to play on the schools’ top team. Hemmings noted that a couple of sixth-graders are playing on the A team for basketball, but the rest are filling in the ranks on the B teams.
In some cases, sports teams have struggled to fill a roster. Hemmings said it has only been a couple of years since soccer was split into boys’ and girls’ teams. Before that, it was co-ed because of numbers. In fact, Pilot Middle kept soccer as co-ed this fall because the team had 18 boys and just six girls (two of which were sixth-graders).
Gentry Middle had good turnout for both soccer teams, with a slight boost from the younger athletes: 17 boys, with three sixth-graders, and 18 girls, with three sixth-graders.
Of the four county middle schools, sixth-graders had the biggest impact on Gentry’s girls’ tennis team. The squad had six girls from the eighth grade, seven from the seventh grade and five sixth-graders.
At Mount Airy Middle School, adding a few girls to the volleyball team allowed the coach to split them up into an A team and B team, which didn’t happen last year.
This could really be beneficial in the spring for softball and baseball, which haven’t had much depth, according to Dorsett.
Hopefully, a stronger participation in middle school can lead to bigger turnout at the high school, too, he hoped. Last year the softball team barely had enough players to field a team. A few years ago, when two players quit in mid-season, Mount Airy had to shut down and forfeit its remaining games.
When the fall season ended, Dorsett said the city district reviewed the situation and all agreed that participation was certainly the right decision.
For the current winter season, Hemmings said sixth-grade turnout was up from the fall. With 335 athletes at the four county schools, 73 of them come from the sixth grade — almost exactly double the fall number.
Gentry has the biggest showing with 31 of its 95 athletes from the lowest grade. There are seven boys in basketball, six girls in basketball, eight in wrestling and six in swimming.
Hemmings said he anticipates that there will be a strong showing in the spring for track. There is unlimited participation in track, so the coaches could field some pretty large squads. This will give the sixth-graders some exposure to the events and the meets than can make them more successful in the future.
And if sports makes the students behave better in class, the teachers will be happy, too.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.