So I got an e-mail yesterday from US Figure Skating that has gotten my wheels turning and my fingers tapping on this trusty laptop.
It was an advertisement for a company called K12, “the nation’s leading online learning provider for students in grades K-12.” My initial reaction was surprise and, admittedly, even a little disgust. By sending this out to the membership, is US Figure Skating basically endorsing not going to school?
I don’t know whether this went out to the entire membership or just coaches or just adults. (Did you get this e-mail as well?) It concerns me that this online schooling seed is being so directly planted in the minds of skaters, coaches, and parents by our umbrella organization. Of course, many competitive skaters and other athletes are already not going to school – and by going to school I mean passing through the front doors of actual buildings containing classrooms, blackboards, lockers, cafeterias, and gyms – but is this something to actively promote?
Home schooling, mail-order schooling, and now online schooling have been prevalent in our sport for years. Many skaters have gotten excellent educations and gone on to be productive citizens through these methods. Doing this has allowed to them to train more, and, for some (though not necessarily all) this has helped them achieve more success as athletes than they may have, otherwise. Conversely, many other athletes and non-athletes across the country have gotten mediocre educations within both public and private school systems. Many schools are under-funded, teachers are underpaid, and some students slip through the cracks. Some parents contend that, whether they become skating champions or not, their children are better off not being in classrooms. Many parents would argue the exact opposite. In the end, no matter where students obtain their educations, it’s a matter of what they make of it. (This is true of what rink they skate at as well.)
As a coach and former competitor, I recognize that skating success can be correlated, to a large degree, to the amount of time spent on the ice. And my visits to Nationals and Junior Nationals over the last several years have underscored the fact that full-time high school students who are squeezing in their skating in the wee hours of the morning or on crowded after-school freestyle sessions have difficultly keeping up with athletes who aren’t going to school.
I don’t know exactly how many National-level competitors still go to school but I’d be interested in those statistics. (Anyone?) My sense is that the scales are gradually tipping to more unconventional schooling. Maybe instead of Should skaters go to school, I should be asking, rather: Can skaters still go to school? Is it even feasible these days to move up the ranks while attending school? Which skaters at the top right now still go to school? (College doesn’t count since the in-class commitment is considerably smaller.)
I understand that alternative schooling is an appropriate choice for some, I just have a hard time accepting that US Figure Skating would endorse this so directly. I believe that there is value in actually attending school for many reasons. First, there is all that socialization: how to get along with other people, how to accept the differences in others, and how to navigate a multitude of social intricacies such as where to sit, who to befriend, how to work on group projects, when to stand your ground and when to go with the flow. Some might argue that you can pick up these skills in an ice rink and that’s true, to a degree. (And let’s face it, skating is an education in and of itself.) But ice rinks can also be very insular – everyone is working so hard on such specific things and with so much focus that there is very little room for the outside world. That isn’t inherently bad, I just think it’s important for kids to get exposure to other things, elsewhere.
In its advertisement, K12 claims that it “gets kids thinking big…Every subject is delivered online, with hands-on experiments, plus books and support from expert teachers.” Call me old fashioned, but there’s definitely more to learning and to growing up than what can be derived from a book, or a computer screen, or a series of personalized e-mails, or on the ice, for that matter. (And I write this as someone who has derived a whole lot from each of these things.) Being in school, day-in and day-out opens students up to all kinds of distractions to filter, frustrations to hurdle…and also inspirations to ponder.
Let’s not gloss over the academic aspect. Getting into good colleges is becoming increasingly competitive (admittedly not everyone’s goal). K12 may very well provide excellent educational material. But just like skating on sessions with other good skaters is motivating, it’s motivating to be around other good students, and challenged by them, as opposed to working in isolation.
Granted, schools could and should be more flexible with students who are pursuing outside activities. With the help of coaches, parents of skaters can try to help their school districts to think outside the box when it comes to scheduling accommodations, such as waving study halls and gym class, so that skaters can go in late, or leave early, or duck out during the lunch hour if possible. I have written several letters to school administrators to help justify schedule tweaks. Parents seem to have varying degrees of success with this, here in New York State. I wonder if US Figure Skating and the governing bodies of other elite non-school sports could work together to foster more compensations within the educational system (i.e. educate the educators) so that athletes don’t feel like they have no choice but to seek other schooling options?
In my high school years, while I was a National competitor, I was fortunate to be able to attend my public school in Delaware for only half a day from about 7:40 in the morning until about 12:30. Like many other kids at the University of Delaware program in those years, I did not go to lunch, I had very few study halls, I did not have art class, or any other electives, and I did not go to gym class.
I realize this was not exactly a typical high school experience. I did, however, have a full-load of academic courses and somehow managed to participate in a bunch of clubs like the yearbook and literary magazine. I went to the prom in an extremely poofy pink dress. I learned a lot from participating in skating but also through observing my teachers and making connections with kids with different interests. I started to figure out who I was and what my opinions were beyond the realm of skating. This opened my eyes and got me thinking about what I might want to do after I was done competing. It was due to the direct encouragement of teachers that I started to think I might want to become a writer. Of course, I also became a skating coach and I am happy about this. I have tried a lot of other things, so coaching is something I feel I’ve chosen rather than something I’m doing by default. There is a sense of freedom in that.
Would I have gone further in my skating if I had switched to another method of schooling? Quite possibly. Or maybe being even more dedicated to this sport than I already was would have turned me off of it all together. We’ve all seen kids overdose on skating. We’ve seen what it has done to their bodies and their families. And when things don’t go well, the result is much more devastating for a skater when skating has become his or her only source of self-identity.
I know that everyone is different and circumstances vary, that people have all kinds of geographical and logistical constraints in their training. I realize that once you’re on the Grand Prix circuit and even Junior Grand Prix circuit it’s especially difficult to juggle traditional school hours. I am not chastising elite competitors who have made this decision. What breaks my heart is when I see young skaters who have yet to prove themselves as athletes taken out of school in order to pursue a dream that may or may not come true. I wonder how much online schooling really increases the chances…
I fear that US Figure Skating’s sponsorship connection with a company like K12 could encourage the wrong families to make this decision, prematurely. I fear that it makes not going to school seem like the skating norm.
Elite competitive skating is something you can only do when you’re young, so I understand that families feel compelled to do everything they can to seize that opportunity. But proms and homecomings and high school graduations only come around once in a lifetime as well.
I am sure there are lots of disparate opinions on this topic: please provide your own thoughts by clicking on “comment” below.
And, yes, I have been silent for the last few weeks – I have been in the process of moving. Have you heard that moving is widely considered to be one of the top five most stressful events in life? This is definitely true, even when you’re moving for very very good reasons. Anyway, this move is an upgrade in many senses, and in no small part due some excellent garbage pickin’ I did in Manhattan. Read more by clicking here.
In the last month, I have amassed lots of ideas and research for more CSOM installments, most excitingly, a great interview with National Gold Medalist Alissa Czisny’s coach, Julianne Berlin. I plan to run this quite soon.