"The gang mentality works."
I think we would just rather have young people in gangs we control like swim teams and orchestras than street gangs.”
So says Mark Rauterkus, a South Side resident and activist who serves as swim and golf coach for Pittsburgh Obama, as he reflects on Pittsburgh Public Schools’ recently announced consideration of further cuts to sports teams and arts-related programs.
Pittsburgh schools, facing declining enrollment and financial woes that could land the district in bankruptcy with a deficit of $49.6 million by 2016 unless drastic changes are made, have been the subject of a $2.4 million study by consultants FSG and Bellwether Education Partners paid for by grants from the Fund for Excellence and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The results of the study indicate that cost-cutting is required, and Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane says that school closures, consolidations and reconfigurations, along with longer cleaning and sanitation intervals for schools, reduced transportation costs by using Port Authority buses for high schoolers and staggered schedules to allow for multiple routes per bus, eliminating staff positions and reducing the high school day from nine periods to eight daily.
Lane also suggested the district could save as much as $600,000 yearly by eliminating intramural sports; the middle-school volleyball, swimming and wrestling teams, and the high school golf, swimming and tennis teams, and another $400,000 by spending less on athletic transportation, uniforms and equipment.
“Sports and intramurals are very important to young people,” Rauterkus says. “When you go to suburban districts, their facilities are buzzing with conditioning and off-season practices, but here in the city, you go to any of our schools and they are closed. In return, people look at that and say, ‘Oh, look at the marching band over there,’ or ‘look at the sports opportunities there,’ and they pack up their households and they go.”
“The outward migration in the city is huge,” Rauterkus says. “The city has almost turned the tide, and young people are staying here, but they will not stay if there is not a place for their kids to go to school, with the opportunities that are matched 3 miles or 8 miles away in Bethel Park, or Shaler or wherever.”
Rauterkus says sports is one way that PPS can show it can compete with the suburban districts, and wonders whether Lane realizes the importance of sports and other “extracurriculars” to the lives of students and their families.
“She will mention ‘teamwork’ in a lot of her talks, she talks about students being ‘Promise Ready,’ but if you are interested in teamwork, you don’t cut teams,” Rauterkus says. “Colleges look for scholastic kids who are into athletics.”
“Our city kids aren’t as aware of the whole process. When our kids go to college, I want them on a team,” Rauterkus says, referring to the large number of Promise Scholars who may be the first in their family to attain post-secondary education. “I want them to be surrounded by other kids, and another adult, who are going to help them get through the college experience in a positive way.”
Rauterkus says that at Swarthmore, where his son, 2013 PPS grad Erik, attends, participation in varsity athletics is 55 percent.
“At Washington and Jefferson, 45 percent of the students are varsity athletes,” Rauterkus says. “Being on a sports team gives you a support group, you learn time-management, and it makes you more attractive to possible employers.”
Rauterkus admits the high percentages “don’t hold” at larger schools, but says “kids on a team have instant friendships. They watch out for each other, and watch they stay academically eligible and on the straight and narrow.”
The sports being cut, says Rauterkus are “lifetime sports. When they are 20 or 30 or 40 years old, they are not going to pick up a tennis racket or a golf club or learn to swim. They can’t go to the beach or holiday on a boat if they can’t swim.”
Rauterkus says the cuts mean the loss of life lessons for kids, but also, “sports are a way for a lot of these kids to get their exit ticket punched, to be able to do better for themselves.”
The school population has declined consistently over the last 10 years. This year, PPS enrollment from K-12 is 24,525, while the number of school-aged residents (4-17) has declined from 52,000 in 2000 to 37.000 in 2010.
“To turn that around, we need to invest in these things that are rooted in the communities,” Rauterkus says. “Kids need to make ‘buddies,’ not just the kid they sit next to in Math class.”
Rauterkus says even he, who has been “rah-rah for Pittsburgh schools all along,” would consider moving from the district to keep extra-curriculars available for his younger son, Grant, a sophomore.
“No matter what Bill Peduto does, it will fail,” he says, although he does hope that the new administration can come to some sort of agreement through the Department of Parks and Recreation to share school facilities outside of school hours.
“A lot of communities do that. It happens with our charter schools here,” he says, citing Urban Pathways’ use of the Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District for physical education facilities.
“We could sell an ‘athlete pass,’ where we could do clinics for kids all year and use CitiParks facilities and PPS school facilities,” Rauterkus proposes. He believes there is enough interest to make it financially viable because of his involvement with the district’s “Summer Dreamers” program, where the demand for programs such as swimming and water polo were nearly four times the number of children who could be accommodated. “Scholarships could be made available, but some people could pay, and it could pull its own weight.”
“Suburban schools are beginning to charge participation fees to help cover costs, but it’s very difficult in the PPS to even have a booster group,” he says. “It’s hard to have an ongoing viable group to support the ‘extras’ the programs need.”
In light of Lane’s proposed cut of classroom periods, Rauterkus suggests that after-school athletics could take the place of physical education classes, including practices for cheerleading, marching band step-dancing and other dance teams. After school athletics could also solve transportation problems, particularly at schools with combined middle- and high-school populations.
“The middle-school kids go until 4 o’clock, and the high-school kids go ’til 3 o’clock,” Rauterkus says, so athletic facilities are still in use by Phys. Ed. classes for an hour after the high-schoolers are done with the academic day.
“Shady Side Academy mandates that every single one of their students participate on a team,” he says. The Pittsburgh-area private school uses the athletics programs to meet state Phys Ed. requirements, and mandates that teachers take on a team as a part of their employment. Sports include everything from backpacking to dance to ice hockey in the Senior School’s ice arena.
“Everything is confounded by the budget,” Rauterkus says. “CAPA ran out of paper for the art students in December. Ten schools are going to close, but they are going to fight to save three of them. No one likes the uncertainty, and every school is in decline. The district is being hurt through the lack of clarity, and people don’t want to be part of a sinking ship.”
“They are at a permanent disadvantage, and people vote with their feet, and they leave.”
“We need to make another arrangement that is strong enough, and attractive enough, to keep families from moving,” Rauterkus says.
By Nancy Hart, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @nhart543