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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

School Strikes and After-School Sports

A school district in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, called Pennsbury, is on strike. The teachers went out on strike not before school started, but this past Sunday, because they could not reach agreement with the school district on a contract. Times are tense in this school district, which is snuggled into a corner of Southeastern Pennsylvania that in places touches the Delaware River and is the last stop on I-95 before you get to New Jersey. Good school district, big school district.

And one with a football team with a 6-1 record, its best in years, and with a chance of making the state playoffs. In the past 10+ years, the big names in Southeastern PA HS football have included former state champs Central Bucks West and Neshaminy, both nearby schools, as well as St. Joseph's Prep and North Penn. This year, Pennsbury is knocking on the door.

Five of the team's coaches, including its head coach, are in the teachers' union and won't cross the picket line to coach their kids. A sixth, the defensive coordinator, is an assistant principal at the school, will coach the team for as long as the teachers are on strike (by law, they're only allowed to be out 17 days). Other administrators will fill in to help coach the team.

This is a school district that has a state championship-quality girls' volleyball team, a defending state champion girls' softball teams and an outstanding wrestling team. Many of its other teams are perennial contenders in their sports. There's a lot of school spirit, and Reader's Digest rated the HS's prom as one of the top 100 events in America. In the past couple of years, a book was written about the high school. Whether it was favorable depends on your point of view.

Something, though, is wrong with this picture.

The strike has heightened emotions in the district. It's hard to say how the community is lining up, and I won't get into that, as this is a sports blog, albeit, I hope, a sports blog with perspective.

And, as much as I like kids, and as much as I like sports, I'm not sure the community's priority is straight if they have to worry so much about getting their games played. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it might be better to focus the administrators' efforts in helping improve the district, maybe helping get special needs' kids and families the attention that they need, heck, even helping enhance the average kid's chances of getting into college, than playing games.

Kids' games.

Now, I know that the games are very important to the kids because, well, they're kids and in HS they can define themselves not always by the content of their character, but by the jersey on their back and the privileges that the jersey brings along, such as a group of friends and certain standing within the school pecking order, for whatever ultimately all that is worth (and let's not forget the parents, some of whom get some extra cache and verve because their offspring are starters on the teams). That said, they HS students are kids, and they're still figuring out their priorities, which is why adult leaders need to help set them.

And, if everyone looked in the mirror, the games wouldn't be very important. For, while I am certain that some kids will learn some life-altering lessons about hard work, team work and character from their sports teams, not all kids get that opportunity. And it really isn't fair that when school isn't available, somehow, the games continue -- at the expense of all other things that make school such an integral part of our communities.

The last time I checked, the sports were extracurriculars, which means they wouldn't exist if the curriculars weren't there.

And, at the present, in this particular school district, the curriculars aren't there.

Therefore, the games shouldn't be taking place.

That may sound a bit harsh, because the kids on the football team have no power over whether the kids go on strike.

But neither do the kids who have to work after school to help their families make ends meet, the kids who need extra help, the kids who are on the math team and the kids who have elected not to participate in any activities.

The energies should be focused on getting the teachers back into school, regardless of which side is right and which side is wrong, if that really can be readily determined.

And that -- a lesson about school districts, taxes, budgets, life tenure for teachers, co-pays on health insurance, senior citizens on fixed incomes, labor relations -- is a much more important life lesson than making sure that a football game gets played.

No one wants a school district and its residents to have to make these tough choices. No one really wants a strike, and no one wants kids to miss their games.

But in times of temporary turmoil, whether the games are played is of little importance.


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