State school officials recently approved athletic participation for sixth-graders, but is it the right move?
City school officials discussed this matter Tuesday at their monthly board meeting, held this time at Jones Intermediate.
School board members, along with school personnel in attendance, bounced ideas back and forth, considering the pros and cons of allowing this class to play sports.
The new ruling from the state allows kids in the sixth grade to play any sport except football, which is the most physical sport and led to concerns over injuries.
Board member Ben Cooke said he had heard that Stokes County moved quickly to approve the measure for its middle schools.
If local teams are playing Stokes in conferences, then that could lead to a competitive advantage, reasoned member Mike Marion.
Similar thinking arose in talks for Surry County Schools, which has approved the same measure.
“This caught us off-guard. … It was a surprise,” said Tom Hemmings, SCS athletic director. The district hadn’t heard any rumors about this ruling at the state level. “To our knowledge, it hadn’t even been discussed that much.”
There are so many variables to consider, and coaches to poll, that city school board member Tim Matthews said he wasn’t comfortable making a decision on Tuesday.
Unfortunately, the late announcement from the state doesn’t leave much time for discussion. Fall sports teams begin holding tryouts as soon as Friday, the city board said. Any delay in making a decision could impact the children’s ability to play even with a positive vote.
Hemmings said the county schools hosted physicals back at the end of the school year for anyone wanting to play sports. Since the physicals are good for a year, it seemed best to get that out of the way for all students, since many high school programs have workouts and exhibitions over the summer.
All of these rising sixth-graders missed out on that opportunity to get a physical at the school, noted Hemmings, and going to the family doctor for a checkup could be an added expense to parents.
As for a time crunch on getting the physicals before tryouts, Hemmings said the county schools still have a few days to go. The teams aren’t allowed to hold tryouts until six days before the start of school, which is Aug. 29; so teams won’t hold tryouts until at least Tuesday.
Hemmings said he looked around at the bordering states to see what they are doing.
Georgia and Tennessee allow sixth-graders to participate in all school sports. Virginia allows sixth-graders to play all sports but football. South Carolina still doesn’t allow sixth-graders to play.
From a historical standpoint, Surry County has had many neighborhood schools that served kids from first grade to graduation.
From 1959 to 1961, the upper grades of many of these schools were consolidated into North Surry, East Surry and Surry Central. The neighborhood schools still catered to kids up to the eighth grade.
Then came middle schools and junior highs. When Gentry Middle School opened in 1977, only seventh and eighth grades were offered. Both grades could play all sports.
Now the middle schools have three grades, but the youngest class was never given clearance to play — until now.
From strictly a sports quality point of view, this measure seems like a no-brainer. A 50-percent boost in available athletes should lead to a better pool of talent. In addition, playing as a sixth-grader should make athletes even better for their seventh- and eighth-grade years.
Hemmings said that some small, rural counties have a hard time fielding teams. Even here in Surry County, some school soccer programs have been co-ed because there weren’t enough kids to field both a boys’ and girls’ team.
Still, there are concerns.
Cooke said he spoke about this issue with Catrina Alexander, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. He said she emailed him an article about the dangers of overuse injuries, especially in middle-school years.
Considering that boys typically are hitting their growth spurt about this time, there can be a huge difference between a sixth-grade boy and an eighth-grader, noted one local coach. Not only would this be unfair, the smaller boy could get roughed up.
Girls tend to mature physically earlier than boys, so there might be more girls ready to participate in the sixth grade, said Hemmings. This could help boost girls’ sports programs.
Another issue is upsetting players and students by running out of roster space. What if a returning eighth-grade player loses a spot on a team to an incoming sixth-grader, asked Dr. Kim Morrison, MACS superintendent.
That wouldn’t be an issue for sports like track and soccer, which generally have large rosters, but could be an issue for a sport like tennis or golf, where only a handful of the best players compete.
Morrison also noted that schools tend to have an A team and B team in sports. The A team is mostly eighth-graders with a few seventh-graders bumped up. The B team is all seventh-graders.
It would be a financial burden to try to field a third squad, she noted.
And would that mean the schools would need more assistant coaches to work with all these athletes, asked Wendy Carriker, city school board chair.
Cooke believed the school board needed some feedback from the middle school coaches before making a decision.
Jason Dorsett, the recently appointed chief operations officer, pointed out that he is meeting with the sports coaches on Tuesday and can talk about this with them at that point.
In the meantime, Morrison said the sixth-graders can join teams and be managers for now, taking part in practices. Then if the school board makes a decision, the students aren’t behind on the learning curve.
The school board agreed to hold off on a vote until the coaches have been consulted.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.