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Columbia high schools find ways to cope with student athlete needs

Monday, April 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:39 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
Columbia Public Schools makes an effort to see that varying family income levels do not affect students' participation in extracurricular activities.

COLUMBIA — Arnel Monroe, the football coach at Hickman High School, unlocked an equipment storage building next to the school's baseball diamond.

"This is it," he said, gesturing toward a gray plastic tub on the floor. It held about 30 pairs of cleats, sizes 10 to 16, most of them Nikes, well-used but not threadbare — some with turf still stuck between their spikes. 

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To Monroe, it's a collection of donations from graduating seniors and alumni. To a student in need, it's a chance to play ball.

When it comes to playing sports, Columbia Public Schools is not "pay to play," meaning students are not charged a fee to participate in extracurricular athletics. However, given the cost of gear required to play high school sports, these extracurriculars are hardly free. 

A look at the Dick's Sporting Goods website shows that the five top-selling baseball bats range in cost from $150 to $400, basketball shoes from $80 to $180, football cleats from $90 to $100 and softball cleats from $35 to $60. 

That adds up, especially for students from low-income homes. This year, almost 39 percent of Columbia Public Schools students are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, up from about 31 percent in 2007, the year before the recession officially began. In total, that's 6,888 of 17,709 children.

At Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools, coaches and administrators say they are doing what they can to make sure no student is excluded from extracurricular sports based on family income.

'If I knew about it, I would have to stop it'

Public high schools in Columbia lend out items required to play in a game or match to the entire team, such as uniforms, helmets and pads. Exceptions include golfers and swimmers, who usually buy and keep their uniforms, said Doug Mirts, Hickman athletics director.

But high schools cannot give students extra items such as cleats, tennis shoes or practice gear. It is against Missouri State High School Activities Association regulations for a school to assist families in buying these items or to buy them for the student athletes, said Jennifer Mast, athletics director at Rock Bridge.

Because of these rules, she feels she must stay unaware of how some athletes get gear that isn't supplied by the school.

"If those things get taken care of outside the student’s family, I don't necessarily know about it — sometimes I think the student doesn't necessarily know about it," Mast said. "If I knew about it, I would have to stop it, so I'm glad I don't."

According to the 2011-12 MSHSAA Official Handbook, high school athletes must maintain amateur status, meaning they play for social, physical and mental benefits. Amateur status is forfeited when a student capitalizes on athletic fame by receiving money, gifts of monetary value or merchandise. 

This includes items necessary to practice his or her sport, Mast said.

"It is intended to keep amateur athletes from being paid," Mast said. "The backside of that is if you don't have the money, how are you going to get it?"

Coaches at Hickman and Rock Bridge navigate this problem by lending out equipment they have acquired from graduating students and alumni. It is not against Missouri rules for students to borrow these necessary yet costly items, as long as they give them back to the school.

'We don't want to hold them back'

Jason West, a spokesman for MSHSAA, which sets the rules for high school athletics, said there is a way schools can assist students in need while abiding by regulations. In fact, he said, this issue is often discussed at association meetings.

A school can establish a fund to support student athletes in need as long as it also creates a policy that states exactly how a student qualifies for financial help, West said. Benchmarks can be a certain family income or whether the student qualifies for free or reduced-price school meals. Teams can raise money for this kind of need.

As long as it is clear the school is helping a student athlete with an established fund because he or she qualifies and not because of his or her athletic ability, association rules are still being followed, West said.

The fund must also be distributed evenly, West said. For example, if both a starter on the varsity football team and a player on the junior varsity football team need assistance, the school cannot give money only to the varsity starter.

"We don't want to hold them back because of a financial need, but we're not basing it on their ability," West said. "We're basing it on wanting them to participate and giving them the opportunity to participate."

'I recycle cleats'

Mirts said instances of need rarely arise in the athletics department at Hickman because students are so willing to share with one another. However, once in a while, it comes up.

"On occasion, when it comes down to things like travel to and from practices, and sometimes if there's special equipment or attire that they particularly need, sometimes there's a few issues with those," Mirts said.

When that happens, he said, the athletics department can lend students the materials they need. Mirts said families should not worry that their children can't participate in sports because of money: Hickman has a collection of extra equipment waiting to be borrowed.

Monroe, who has been Hickman's head football coach since August 2011 and assistant coach for 16 years before that, said players often rely on alumni donations. When it comes to players needing equipment they can't afford, "it's more about shoes than anything," he said.

"I recycle cleats," he said matter-of-factly. "I get some shoe soap out, clean them, spray them with anti-fungal spray. A lot of seniors, when they leave, will give their cleats to us or another person on the team."

In Monroe's experience, a good pair of cleats can run from $75 to $180, depending on where they are purchased and whether there's a sale going on. Between practice cleats and game cleats, that can add up.

"Families with multiple children, they might just buy a pair of game cleats and borrow ours to practice in," he said. "We have kids who, in a span of three games, can tear up a pair of shoes."

Rock Bridge football coach A.J. Ofodile said his team handles needs similarly. Every year, he said, there is at least one player on his team who needs help affording extra equipment.

"When our seniors graduate, they donate their old stuff back to the program — gloves, shoes, whatever is peripheral," Ofodile said. "We always tend to have a surplus of used shoes and things if there is an interest of really needing something."

As a soccer player, golfer and wrestler for Rock Bridge before he graduated in 2010, Josh Litofsky said he occasionally encountered teammates in need. However, the coaches always discreetly loaned out equipment to these students so they were able to compete like everyone else.

"There were always some kids on the team ... you never knew for sure, but there were some kids who you thought maybe were having a bit of a struggle," Litofsky said. "It didn't really affect them, they just came in and played and that was it.

"It was never that big of a deal," he said. "The school did a pretty good job of making it available to kids who didn't have the means to be able to play sports."

'The kids become very much a family'

More often than not, student athletes swap and share equipment, Mirts said. He found this to be true when his daughter played softball for Hickman.

"She didn't use her own bat; she took it and put it in the dugout and used somebody else's bat, and someone used her bat," he said. "They borrow from one another. The kids become very much a family, and they work to help one another."

"No matter whether you're the child who has the least amount of money or you're the child with the most amount of money, you're on the same playing field, and it should be an even and fair playing field," Mirts said. "It comes down to your talents and skills."

Baseball coach Dan Devine Jr., the son of former Missouri football coach Dan Devine, said most Hickman baseball players own their own bats, but it is not a requirement. He said bats are, by far, the most expensive piece of equipment a baseball player needs and, in his experience, run from $100 to $500 per bat.

Some students on his team share bats, but Devine doesn't keep tabs on who has what, he said.

"We let the kids work it out amongst themselves," he said. "If a kid did not have his own bat and couldn't borrow someone else's, it's something the team would purchase."

Teams are often in a constant state of fundraising. Last month, the Hickman baseball team hosted its third annual pancake breakfast at Applebee's on Stadium Boulevard. About 450 people attended, and the team raised $2,300 for field maintenance and other player and coach needs, Devine said. The team recently began selling Papa John's Pizza punch cards and later in the semester will hold a fundraiser at Truman's Bar and Grill.

Making sure athletes are well-equipped is the coach's responsibility, Devine said. His opinion is that if a coach wants to make a player a catcher or first baseman, the team's funds, or the coach, should pay for any special equipment that player needs.

"We want to make extracurricular activities available to all kids, and we're going to help out in any way we can," he said. "For some kids, it's a good motivation to do well in school, so you want to give every kid a chance to participate."

'You have to make the trip'

Denise Boessen, past president of the Rock Bridge booster club, said transportation to and from games is the biggest financial drain on both the athletics departments and families with student athletes.

"The district is doing everything it can to help our athletic teams," Boessen said. "From what I've seen with my kids playing, the problem we have is where we are in the state with the size (Rock Bridge is). There's nobody but Hickman and Jefferson City High School close to play. It's very difficult to play competitions without going to Kansas City or St. Louis."

The Rock Bridge girls basketball team alone traveled about 2,000 miles this season, Boessen said. The district pays for the school buses the athletes take to their games.

Travel also makes it difficult for working parents to watch their children play, Boessen said. She works from home, but her husband, who works for MU, had a hard time making it to many of their daughter Carmen Boessen's basketball games this year. The 18-year-old senior played forward for Rock Bridge. 

"If you want to see your child play, you have to make the trip, but if the game starts at 5:30 or 6 in the afternoon, you probably have to take off work," Boessen said. "It's not even doable for some parents, which is sad. Your kids work very hard to make the team, and it's difficult to see them play, especially if they have siblings."

Ofodile said transportation is the top concern for students from lower-income homes. If a student's parents work, he or she doesn't have a car and school buses aren't an option for whatever reason, getting a ride can be an issue.

That's particularly true in the summer, Ofodile said, when school buses don't run to and from football practices.

"Fortunately for us, we have kids in the program who are team-oriented and generous with giving rides," he said. "They know someone in their neighborhood, and they take the responsibility to help them out when they can."

Litofsky said that, during his junior and senior year on the school's wrestling team, he helped an underclassman teammate get home from practice. 

"There was a kid who lives kind of far away, too far to bike or walk," Litofsky said. "He didn't have a car and his parents both worked real late, and the bus schedule didn't sync up, so our coach would sometimes pick him up or set up for upperclassmen who had cars. (The coach) would make sure he would be able to get to and from practice."

"I gave him a ride a couple times — it wasn't a big deal, he was part of a team," he said. "You do it because he's there for you and you'll be there for him."

When it comes to paying for accommodations and transportation when teams travel, Bruce Whitesides, athletics director for Columbia Public Schools, said schools’ booster clubs help foot the bill.

But the differing levels of family income between Hickman and Rock Bridge students prevent the booster clubs from raising equal amounts of money to support their teams, Whitesides said.

'The means to raise different amounts of money'

Out of 28 schools in the district, Rock Bridge has the second lowest percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, at 20.5 percent, or about 372 students out of 1,817, the school’s enrollment for 2011-12. That's about one in five students. 

Hickman is 15th in the district, with 36.3 percent of students eligible. Based on this year's enrollment of 1,882, that means about 683 of the school's students, or about one in three, come from low-income homes.

Hickman parents are also more likely to both be working long hours, Whitesides said.

"That’s a lot of student families that are not in the same position to contribute (money and time) to booster clubs, music clubs, et cetera," he said.

Because of the household income gap between the two high schools, Hickman students don't have the same financial resources as Rock Bridge students to fund participation in sports, Whitesides said. This also means Hickman athletes aren't as able to afford special one-on-one coaching during their off-seasons, he said.

During this school year, the Rock Bridge booster club has paid out $5,280 to teams, according to Julie Widhalm, the club's co-treasurer. This year, the club has the ability to pay out $1,000 to each of its 16 teams upon coaches' requests; that money comes from booster club membership dues.

The club also has collected $12,289 in parent donations beyond membership dues, which can be used to pay for teams' needs beyond their available $1,000.

Widhalm said not all coaches have submitted their requests for funds, so the amount the club has paid out to teams will be closer to the budgeted $16,000 — $1,000 for each of the 16 teams — by the end of the year.

Maria Cox, president of the Hickman Athletic Booster Club, said it has paid out about $5,750 to teams so far this academic year, but the amount will increase as spring teams become eligible for payouts.

Hickman teams are eligible for up to $1,000 per year from the booster club, though they must meet specific criteria to be eligible, such as having parents attend booster club meetings and meeting volunteer hour requirements.

Cox said only two of 19 teams this year have qualified for the full $1,000 from the booster club; seven teams so far have qualified for $500. This year, the budget for team payouts is $20,000, Cox said.

Hickman parent donations have totaled between $9,000 and $10,000 this academic year, she said.

Another $2,000 to $3,000 has been set aside for scholarships for senior athletes. Cox said the booster club rarely has carryover from one year to the next.

Both athletics departments receive $225,000 per year, coach salaries included, from the district, according to district Chief Financial Officer Linda Quinley.

Mirts said that although the Hickman booster club might not be able to get the same donations as the Rock Bridge club can, its members dedicate many volunteer hours to the school's athletic teams.

"They support us in all the ways they can — I think the two groups have the means to raise different amounts of money," Mirts said. "They both are very supportive of their athletes and families, and they take care of kids. Those groups at both schools spend the money on the kids and families that help raise the money."

Mirts said a common financial roadblock for families is the ability to visit a doctor for a physical. However, the Hickman booster club provides all students with the option of a $20 in-house physical.

"For $20 getting your physical by doctors — that's a pretty good deal," Mirts said. "That's a big hurdle sometimes, getting in to a doctor, so we try to help the kids deal with that."

Cox said the Hickman club has done especially well supporting teams this year compared to past years. Whitesides echoed this.

"I do feel like more teams have had payouts," Cox said. "We've done well: We have more parents involved, volunteering their time and not just their cash."

'We always have a way to work it out'

Boessen and Cox said that, in their experience, students have not needed to turn to the booster clubs for financial help — coaches handle these situations themselves.

"They are a very kind lot of people," Boessen said.

When it comes down to it, every student's situation can and will be catered to by their team, Ofodile said.

"Different kids have different means, and playing sports can be expensive," Ofodile said. "We'll always have kids who need a little help here and there, but those things have never been a deterrent to kids actually playing. If you want to play and you want to be here, we always have a way to work it out."


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