Should Skaters go to School?

March 3, 2009

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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.

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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.

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13 Responses to “Should Skaters go to School?”

  1. JoAnn Says:

    What a terrific post/article/essay. You hit many nails on their tiny little heads and I may have more to say later.

    I think it is terrible if the USFSA is even remotely linked to encouraging online education. Aren’t these skaters insulated from reality enough, already?

    You said “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.”

    This is a real quibble of mine also. Far too many parents think their kid is going to be the next great thing in skating….but let’s face it, how many skaters really make it big? And even if they do, so often they are just a shooting star which burns out so fast.

    When I tried to “click here” there was no link. Can you check it out? Thanks

  2. Anna Says:

    This is really great. I am glad that you spoke out about this. It almost seems as if the kids at the top are getting so hurt by overtrainng that being in school for a certain number of hours per day would actually be good for their bodies in addition to their minds.

  3. Mr. Rogers Says:

    Home schooling companies have been advertising for years in Skating magazine but this takes it to a whole new level. I have many questions: How much did K12 pay the USFSA to be able to send out this email? Does the USFSA have any statistics on how many deadbeats are created by homeschooling? Do they care, or is it all about the sponsorship dollar? Is there any advertiser that USFSA would turn down on principle? Is it even legal to have your kids not go to school? Most of the kids whom I have known to be homeschooled are weird. Parents beware.

  4. Jerry L Says:

    I agree that schools should work with skaters more. It is ridiculous that any competitor who skates over something like 5 hours per week should have to participate in gym class. I’m all for learning how to throw and catch a ball but this seems like place where they could make more concessions.

  5. Jenni Says:

    Well said Joc! I will never encourage a parent to pull a child out of school to skate or do any other activity and I’m grateful my parents did not allow me to either. In my experience, the more open the communication with the school is, the more flexible they are (it helps sometimes for a coach to talk to the guidance counselor too). Still some schools are more strict than others, but I’ve noticed as children specialize in specific sports at younger ages now, parents pull kids out of school for hockey, volleyball, basketball, etc. and schools seem to see the value in participation in these types of activites.

    I think the USFS email is disturbing and glad you wrote about it.

  6. BA Says:

    I am not a fan of homeschooling. I competed for 10 yrs in figure skating in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and I think it’s key to social maturity to go to school in an actual physical school. Competitive skating is so time consuming on and off the ice, you need the normality of regular school to counterbalance it at least somewhat.

  7. pbf Says:

    I could not agree more with your response Jocelyn! Good old 7:30am – 2:30pm school, 5 days a week was 100% worth it! Being involved in cheerleading in high school actually supplemented the physical fitness required by intense skating practice. I have amazing friends from my skating experiences but I have friends I love equally as much from public school. The social aspects of a classroom are in some ways the same, but also very different than those of the nomadic rink-life. The time management skills I learned balancing an AP-filled schedule with hours of practice are some of the most treasured skills that will be useful for the rest of my life. I couldn’t have made it this far in my education without them. Besides, having the rink to myself at 6am because I had to be at school by 7:30 is something I would never exchange for afternoon sessions and private tutors.

  8. AR Says:

    Thanks for writing about this. This has been a huge hot button for me, for years. We should be encouraging skaters to go to regular schools for all of the reasons you list. I agree there are instances where the only workable approach is to get education outside of the classroom. However, EVERYONE needs to experience the real world. In the real world, you have deadlines, have to juggle multiple things and set priorities. The skaters who can manage both school and training are preparing themselves well for their future, regardless of what they achieve in skating. We should be actively working with the schools to find every available option to make getting an education in the classroom work for our athletes.

    Our club has taken the somewhat unpopular position of establishing scholastic honors awards for our skaters who are enrolled in and attend classes in a bricks and mortar school. We have received protests from the parents of our home-schooled skaters saying that we are unfairly excluding them. We patiently explain to our protestors that our intent is to recognize our skaters who show they can achieve success both inside and outside of the rink, have contributed to a community greater than the skating population, have developed time management skills, and have developed the interpersonal skills needed to function in a diverse environment.

    There are certainly skaters who have managed to do both – achieve in the classroom and in the skating world. Kimmie Meissner comes to mind as a recent example. Didn’t we all find it refreshing to read the many articles about Kimmie attending her high school prom, returning to classes after winning the World title, visiting hospitals for her Kool Kids campaign, etc. Aren’t these the characteristics we want to see in our skating role models – an air of normalcy, concern for others, humility, willingness to participate in bettering the community?

    I suspect USFS did not really think they were promoting home-schooling/online schooling as the preferred alternative for skater’s academic education via this communication. However, I think USFS should put equal effort into providing guidance to clubs on options for achieving a classroom education for its skaters. There are skating programs throughout the US who have had major success in partnering with schools to make this work. USFS should be soliciting the learnings of those programs and publishing information on how other rinks/programs implemented alternative academic solutions involving local schools.

  9. Spicedaddy Says:

    Great post, Jocelyn. I think this is the natural consequence of our “free market/free enterprise” society. I read a great book several years ago called “The Winner Take All Society”, which discussed how the commercial potential in elite sports, entertainment, and some other industries/pastimes results in handful of people at the top getting all the financial/material riches/rewards, and most others get nothing.

    This is true with skating today. Yes, skaters obviously love to skate and it is a passion, but an Olympic/World Medal or US Title is worth a lot of money. It means getting paid good money to skate shows and tour, endorsements/sponsorship, TV appearances, fame, fortune – a lucrative career doing what you love. But only a handful of skaters can have these opportunities – it’s the not like, say, being an accountant. An OK accountant can make a good living, a great accountant can make a fortune. An “OK” skater cannot make a living as a skater at all. (not counting coaching earnings potential, but actual *skating*). You must be great, and your career is short. To quote a line from the movie “Ice Princess” – what’s the shelf life on a competitive figure skater? and what’s the shelf life on your MIND!

    But with the stakes that high, the competition is high, and gets higher all the time. The Olympic Ladies Champ in the year that I believe you (Jocelyn!) were born won with nothing more demanding than a double lutz in her free program. Today, that won’t even get you out of regionals in juvenile ladies. The Olympic ladies medalists as recently as 20 years ago won with 3 sal and 3 toe. Today, you’d be lucky if that got you out of Sectionals in jr or sr ladies.

    Is it any wonder, then, that it’s come to home schooling? The competition is so fierce for those prized few spots, can you blame parents of children with “potential” for taking them out of school?

    Part of the problem, as I see it, is that it’s gotten to a point where kids who are NOT going to go the Olympics or even to Nationals are taken out of school for their skating. This is foolish. But, again, it’s a free enterprise system. Unless we go to a Soviet-style “command” system, where USFS decides who is talented enough to warrant home schooling, or where the government forces all school-age children to be in a “real” school, I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about it.

    Another problem resulting from “free enterprise”: obviously the early morning ice time once eaten up by figures is now used for freestyle. But who can do triples at 6 am? Again, our free market/free enterprise system for RINKS means that other more financially lucrative uses of evening ice-time means that kids have limited ice time after 5 or 6 pm (hockey and public sessions at night, etc). So if you can only practice right before and right after school, and before school is too early to really train full-out, then the other option is during the school day.

  10. Jozet Says:

    One of the problems we’re bumping up against already (in PA) is that the schools are required by state to not allow more than 5 days excused absence for educational reasons. Any days beyond 5, and parents can be subject to fines. Also, PSSAs (thanks to No Child Left Behind) take a huge chunk of time in preparation and in the doing. I don’t know anyone in my area who has had success in getting a modified schedule to skate, let alone compete or test.

    On the other hand, I do know plenty of homeschooled children and families, and these are communities of homeschoolers; kids are actually very well socialized and don’t actually think that they are missing anything by not being in typical school activities. (For what it’s worth, I did go to a public school, and wasn’t invited to the prom, anyway. 😉 ) I wouldn’t come down on homeschooling. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience for the children and families I know, and when their kids do enter public school, it is usually at a grade or two ahead, or by taking accelerated coursework in subjects.

    There is a problem, I think, with parents homeschooling children because they’ve been told that their Basic 6 kid has talent, or some such thing. Hint: most everyone hears that their kid has “talent”. The child most certainly does, I’m sure, but to make extra sure that it’s something more than a nicety, a parent should probably get an assessment from someone who they can be certain is not blowing smoke up their skirt because, certainly, every parent wants to hear that their child is noticed. However, niceties are not a reason to pull a kid out of traditional school, especially if the kid doesn’t want it.


  11. First off, I’ll say that I am a homeschooling parent and a self employed person and I happen to strongly believe that homeschooling can be far more “real world” than school-schooling is. Sure, homeschooling isn’t for everyone, but it has proven to be absolutely the best option for two out of three of my kids. (The middle kid loves school, thrives in school, and therefore is in school. It’s what’s best for her.)

    Secondly, I don’t like K12 at all as a company or as a school system. They are a) not “homeschooling” but rather a school that you happen to be able to do from home and b) not a very good school, either. They have an interesting business model if all you are interested in is money, but not a terribly good pedagogical model if what you are interested in is intelligent and engaged citizens who are ready for an ever-changing political, social, and economic environment with all that entails.

    That being said, I’m surprised that an ad for K12 sent out by USFS would seem odd or out of place. There have always been advertisements for correspondence schools in Skating Magazine, even way back in the 80’s when *I* was a competitive skater. This isn’t something new. It’s not that they are trying to force skaters to quit regular school, but rather that the correspondence schools know that serious athletes are a solid market segment and US Figure Skating is happy to get the advertising dollars.

  12. Season Williams Says:

    My daughter skates in Michigan. She is currently an 8th grader and will be attending a public High School in the fall. When my daughter was entering middle school I seriously contemplated having her homeschooled because she was going to loose practice ice time due to her school day starting earlier. I researched home schooling and spoke with other parents at our rink and coaches. I also talked openly about homeschooling with my daughter. After all my research and contemplation. My daughter and I decided that it would be best for her to continue to go to traditional school because that is what she wanted and was what was best for her. I went to the principal at our school and asked if she could miss homeroom so that she would not be loosing any ice time while she was going to traditional school. The principal was happy to accomodate. My daughter has also found that she loves to swim competitivly by going to her traditional Middle School. She has been on her Middle School swim team during 7th and 8th grade. I know that if she had been home schooled she would not have had a lot of the social education that she is learning by going to traditional school. I do not always like the social education she is learning but I’m always available to help my daughter with any social problems she is having and I try my best to see how she will handle her social problems to help her grow and mature.

    I have also been reconsidering homeschooling for my daughter as she enters high school next year. Mainly because again she will be loosing ice time to stay in traditional school. Another problem with my daughter going to traditional high school is that the State of Michigan has drastically changed it requirements for graduation. It is very difficult now for traditional public schools in our state to allow students to have modified schedules because of the new academic guidelines and graduation requirements implemented in the State of Michigan. Michigan has now one of the strictest standards for graduation in the United States. I feel this is a very positive change for Michigan but it makes participating in extracurricular activities very difficult. The students in Michigan are having a hard time just picking electives to take in school during the school day. Some students have to go to summer school just to be able to take some of the elective courses like; foreign language, computer classes and business classes, so that they can still get all there graduation requirement classes completed during the fall/winter academic year. I know that if my daughter wants to take 4 years of a foreign language and take classes in graphic art and computer classes to help her toward the career she has chosen (computer animaiton)she will have to take at least 2 of the foreign language classes during the summer.
    There are advantages however to allowing my daughter to go to traditional high school for her skating next year. Her high school has the largest competitive figure skating team in the state. She will be able to earn a varsity letter for participating on the figure skating team and she will have opportunities to pursue other interests. Her school has the most extracuricular activities available to students in the state of Michigan becuase her school is on the same campus as three other high schools and the students from all three high schools are able to particpate in all the activties that each high school has to offer. She will also be taking classes in all three high schools so she will have the feel of what it is like to walk across campus to go from one class to another just like in college.
    It will be difficult to continue competitive figure skating in high school but it will also be a lot of fun. If my daughter does not go to Nationals or Worlds or the Olympics that’s okay. I just want her to have fun doing the sport she loves. Skating should not take over a childs life. If your child has what it takes to be our next National Champion then that is great but I encourage all the parents I talk to at my rink to keep skating in perspective. Your child is only a child for a short time and if Alyssa can be a National Champion in her early 20’s so can your child. Children do not have to be a National Champion at the age of 14. There are many avenues in this sport to allow skaters to love this sport and be successful. You have to talk to your child and coach and decide what avenue is best for you skater. Don’t allow the coach or other parents or other skaters dictate the best choice for your skater. Single freestyle skating is not the only figure skating option available to skaters. There’s pairs skating, ice dancing and synchronized skating. There are also competitive high school competitions and collegiate competitions for single, pairs, ice dance, and synchronized skating. You have to find your nich in this sport and let you and your child decide how to make there dreams come true. No email, commercial endorsement, magazine ad, coach, skater, or other parent will help make my daughters dreams come true. My daughter’s hard work, determination, desire and good coaching will help her make her dreams in skating come true. The same applies to her education, hard work, determination, desire and good teaching.
    I love my daughter and I love watching her skate but I also want so many other opportunities for her in her life. I hope that someday all her dreams will come true.

  13. skatemom Says:

    Sometimes parents with 3 or 4 kids have no choice but to home school their competitive skater so that the other kids can spend time with mom, dad and sibling. It’s a hard balancing act but the schedule can be much more friendly to the whole family to work as a unit instead of being separated.

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