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Voices: A field day for online learners

Heather O’Mara, founder and CEO of HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-Op, says even students who do a bulk of their schoolwork in cyberspace need the grounding force of field day.

HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-Op, like every school in the state, is focused on academic achievement and long-term success for our students. HOPE has demonstrated student growth, recently moving from “Turnaround” to “Priority Improvement” status on the state’s school performance matrix.

We’re proud of our commitment to academics, but another event – our very first Field Day – reminded me that, as educators teach the fundamentals like reading, writing and math, school activities play an important complementary role in the lives of our students and their engagement at school.

Field Day may seem like a typical/ordinary school activity, but at HOPE, a single school with multiple “learning center” campuses across Colorado, Field Day was anything but typical or ordinary. It was a community-building event. Seven hundred of our 3,000 students came to Denver to compete in time-honored races. Still, Field Day’s underlying impact on education – fostering achievement through affiliation – is the real reason for this and other school-sponsored activities at HOPE.

Participating in school activities benefits a student’s education:

  • Environmental factors – poverty, neighborhood violence, family discord – may impede student engagement. Extracurricular activities can reduce the negative effect of outside influences, and conversely, encourage positive student engagement in learning, according to “School Engagement Among Latino Youth in an Urban Middle School Context: Valuing the Role of Social Support,” Education and Urban Society 37.
  • Participating in extracurricular activities facilitates students’ affiliation to school and with academically focused peers.
  • Students who participate in activity programs tend to have higher grade-point averages, better attendance records, lower dropout rates and fewer discipline problems than students generally, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
  • Extracurricular activities are an avenue for students to establish a positive peer and adult support system – a key component of cultivating student engagement in the classroom, according to Rafael Heller, Sarah Calderon and Elliott Medrich, Academic Achievement in the Middle Grades: What Does Research Tell Us? A Review of the Literature.
  • Students who spend no time in extracurricular activities are 49 percent more likely to use drugs and 37 percent more likely to become teen parents than those who spend four hours per week in activities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The majority of HOPE’s students are at-risk, whether they are on the verge of being lost in the education system because of their family’s socio-economic status, the impermanence of their living situation or significant language acquisition challenges and learning issues. A school-sponsored activities program is crucial to reducing risk and creating a sense of belonging that is a critical building block of long-term academic stability for HOPE students.

Field Day is just one day, but, as a conduit to affiliation and achievement, extra-curricular activities need to be scattered throughout the year. At HOPE, that means growing our competitive sports program to include basketball teams for boys and girls, girls’ volleyball and co-ed soccer. We expanded our cultural arts program and ping-pong tournament while adding a spring skateboard expo.

As educators, we know that teaching our students how to read, inspiring a sense of curiosity about the science of our world, and other things that take place in the classroom are essential. Field Day reminded me that our extra-curricular activities, too, are essential for all our students. Families glow as they watch their grandchildren and children compete in sports and participate in cultural events for the first time ever. Coaches proudly affirm students who have never before been league athletes. It is all part of a bigger strategy to keep those students who are striving to be on the school team on track to academic progress and high school completion.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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