Let’s Play Ball: Why Sports Matter in Chicago

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By Stacey Boyd, Founder & CEO of Schoola

The $200M in budget cuts announced in July by Chicago Public Schools puts elementary school sports teams and the 5,300 coaches who lead them on the chopping block. “Extras” like music and art and sports always seem to be the first to go when budgets are cut, not just in Chicago but all across the U.S. However, what if I told you that by cutting daily exercise for kids will decrease the amount a child learns by half. And that actual proof of that is under an hour’s drive away from Chicago.

The Naperville School District of 19,000 kids experimented with the mandatory mile run at the start of the day for students needing help in math and literacy. They then organized kids’ schedules so that the subjects they struggled with the most followed directly after their morning runs. This is akin to kids doing homework after a couple of hours of running and exercising hard on after school teams, the very programs Chicago Public Schools is now cutting. Children who get aerobic exercise transform their brains due to a protein that is elevated during exercise acting as a sort of “miracle-gro” according to John Ratey, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.  In other words, exercise matters deeply for cognitive development for kids. The Naperville results demonstrate why.  

Kids that ran the zero-mile and participated in Naperville’s PE program not only outperformed neighboring districts, such as Chicago Public Schools and the North Shore consortium (including kids from New Trier), but whole countries. In fact, the eighth grade Naperville students that took an international science test finished first in the world, ahead of Singapore. As a comparison, U.S. students typically rank 18th in the world. Naperville credits much of their academic results to their fitness-based physical education program.

They are not alone. The California Department of Education likewise conducted a study of 279,000 children that confirmed that fit children scored twice as well as their unfit peers. What is particularly compelling is that data crosses socioeconomic lines.  A later study showed that the more fit lower-income students are, the better they do academically as well. Exercise helps break the cycle of poverty.  

Which makes the decision to cut elementary school after school sports that much more heartbreaking.  Assuming these cuts come to pass, we need to find ways to ensure our kids stay healthy and active. Parents need to organize zero hour runs before school. Teachers need to find a way for kids to jump rope in the hallways in between classes and during recess. Money needs to be garnered to buy that equipment and re-hire coaches. While $3.2M is not a drop in the bucket, that represents just a little over $7,200 per elementary school. Parents bringing in outgrown items of clothing (to Schoola) or printer cartridges and old cell phones (to the Funding Factory) or books (to Better World Books) could easily raise $7,200 per school, simply by emptying overstuffed closets and clearing out basements.  

The issue of budget cuts isn’t confined to Chicago. I saw it firsthand when I was a teacher and principal in Boston. I see it in schools all across the Bay Area where I now live and work. And I hear about it daily from the more than 13,000 schools nationwide we work to support. But the impact on Chicago kids is very real.  Kids don’t get a second pass at their elementary school years. As Chicago Public Schools sorts through ways to fund schools adequately, parents can and should step up to the plate. That way our kids can still play ball and learn more while they are at it.

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