High school pay-to-play a barrier for some families

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Not every high school in Michigan requires its student athletes to pay a fee to participate in athletics, but at those that do, what about families that cannot grant their son or daughter to pursue their dreams on the basketball court, football field, track field or even the swimming pool?

The Michigan High School Athletic Association has the picture. The non-profit represents 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high or middle schools.

The association conducts an annual survey of participation fees at Michigan high schools. The most recent survey revealed that there was no change in the use of participation fees in 2015-2016, following earlier declines. According to the survey, 287 high schools, or 51.5 percent that took the survey charged fees this school year, w the same percentage as last year.

2016-12-12Created by Imani Farmer. Survey results from MHSAA.

2016-12-12-2Created by Imani Farmer. Survey results from MHSAA.

Communications Director John Johnson said “We don’t detail the individual schools in our surveys, as far as who is offering participation fees and those who are not,” Johnson said.

“The schools have proven themselves to be very resourceful,” he said. “In the face of declining enrollment and sources of revenue, through things like booster clubs, they’ve been able to raise the necessary money and made investments out of their own general funding at times to maintain sport programs.”

Johnson said some schools that do not have participation fees have come out farther ahead than those schools that do have fees.

He said, “Others have seen participation fees as a necessary means of being able to continue to provide these programs, so right now it kind of cuts both ways in the school sports community, and the survey figures kind of reflect that when you’re hovering around that 50 percent mark in terms of schools that are charging fees.”

For students and families facing hardships with paying the fee, most school districts offer financial help or guidance. Johnson said high school athletics are supposed to be all-inclusive; so if students want to play but don’t have have the money, they can play.

“Most school districts that provide reduced cost lunches or free milk … those same financial guidelines act as a threshold when assessing fees,” he said.

There has always been a debate about student athletes who have their fee waived and end up starting and playing over the student whose family had to pay. Johnson said districts need to educate parents that fees do not guarantee playing time.

“That’s one of the things that you always have to educate schools when they ask about getting into participation fee programs,: he said. “You’re paying a fee for access to the team and all the decisions are made by the coaches, as far as who plays and how often.”

Johnson said that sports mean a lot to athletes and that it is a privilege, not a right. Sports programs at high schools are there to keep students active and involved in after-school activities, rather than being up to no good, he said.

“The important thing to impress upon people that this is no difference if they get free lunch or free milk,” Johnson said. “This is a program that’s been put in place to keep kids involved in the program. Anytime you can keep a youngster involved in an after-school activity, you’re doing good things for that kid, the school and the community because there’s a lot of things a kid can be doing on his or her own time away from a school building, after hours and some of them are not very good.”

East Lansing Public Schools is home to five elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. East Lansing High School offers 17 fall, winter and spring sports ranging from football to cheer to soccer to lacrosse.

East Lansing High School Varsity Football Head Coach Bill Feraco said no students from single-parent or low-income families will be denied the chance to participate because of fees.

Bill Feraco, East Lansing High School Varsity Football Coach.

Imani Farmer

Bill Feraco, East Lansing High School Varsity Football Coach.

“For any sport it is a $275 participation fee and that is good for the whole year,” Feraco said. “They scale it down for multiple members of single family, as far as payment is concerned.”

Fees are usually waived for students experiencing hardships and the athletic boosters club ends up playing a tremendous role, Feraco said.

“We have things in place that allow kids to participate, even if there’s a hardship in paying that fee,” he said. “The General Athletic Boosters Club has been involved in different fundraising activities, one of which is the Athletics Hall of Fame, sponsoring that on a bye year (every two years) … they’re the ones that take care of that fee if kids can’t afford it.”

Feraco said, “Typically for football, that fee is picked up one or two weeks before school begins at a general parent meeting. It is a very simple procedure to get that fee waived and that’s just a very short notice from the family indicating that it’s a financial hardship to make that payment and are asking to be concerned for a waiver, that’s usually processed right through.”

With football costs going up dramatically in the past ten years, Feraco said he is fortunate that the boosters club has been extremely compassionate in helping to fund the fee for all sports.

730 WVFN video on YouTube of East Lansing High School 2016 Football Season Preview. Head Coach Bill Feraco assesses the previous season’s struggles and bright moments. .

East Lansing High School Athletic Director Thomas Hunt said that while the fee is not an issue for most students at East Lansing High, a handful of families face hardships.

“We are a very diverse school district, both ethnically and socio-economically,” he said. “While the fee is not an issue for some families, it is certainly a barrier for others.”

There are greater demands on student athletes now than in the past, Hunt said. “We encourage athletes to have an open dialogue with teachers and coaches, we encourage them to take advantage of time during the school day and in class to complete assignments… and we encourage coaches to have study time before and after practice sessions.”

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