Ports have long offered a way for people who perform poorly in the classroom to succeed, at least financially.
A unique program begun in central California and spreading to other regions regards sports in an entirely different light: as an effective path direct to academic excellence.
The unorthodox approach is showing promise here at James Logan High School, a large public school in the low-income community of Union City, on the east side of San Francisco Bay.
"I wasn't a real strong student, but now my grades are going up," says Tino Figueroa. Adds fellow senior Amir Shiekh: "I feel better prepared for college."
Both are beneficiaries of a curriculum that takes a page from the ancient Greeks and attempts to reintegrate sports into academia, not just as an extracurricular activity or an easy grade for star athletes, but as a vital discipline that helps students become better all-around achievers.
The general idea is to take principles that students can readily see at work in sports, like balance, concentration, and attitude, and demonstrate how they apply equally to success in the study of algebra and biology, for instance.
Classes like the one at James Logan are now taught in 18 schools, mostly in central California where the program was born in 1992, but also in Chicago, San Diego, and Long Beach, Calif. In the widening array of efforts nationwide to "reform" the public schools, this one argues for a holistic approach - balancing insistence on high standards and more-rigorous tests with activities outside the three R's, like the arts or sports. Such activities, say advocates, intrinsically appeal to many students and motivate broader success.
The program is called Promoting Achievement in School through Sports, or PASS, and was created by the nonprofit American Sports Institute, based in Mill Valley, Calif. Schools that accept the program incur a one-time cost of $6,800 for teacher training and preparation and then an annual fee of $300 thereafter for ongoing support and materials. The class runs for a full school year and is offered as an elective.
"It's one of the best programs I've been around," says Rudy Guevara, who teaches the PASS class at Santa Teresa High School in San Jose. "It really teaches kids how to balance life academically, personally, and athletically."
A study by the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL) in Aurora, Colo., one of 10 federally funded labs around the country dedicated to improving teaching in public schools, has given it a glowing recommendation, calling it "a model for total school reform."
Barbara McCombs, who conducted the 1997 McREL assessment, says "the program is constructed to build on things the learner feels are relevant. That gives it a leg up right from the start." Ms. McComb also commended the program for high-caliber teacher training.
Also, studies done by the schools - comparing the grade point averages of students in a PASS class to a group of students outside the class but similar in age, gender, and ethnicity - show better grade improvements for PASS students.
The first noticeable feature of the PASS class at Logan High School is the silence. The first 10 minutes are spent in total, hear-a-pin-drop silence. The exercise in concentration not only seems to keep the class focused but also teaches a skill for other situations, whether preparing for the SAT or the opening kickoff of a football game.
Concentration is just one of the fundamentals that make up the core course work. The others are balance, relaxation, power, rhythm, flexibility, instinct, and attitude. Typical assignments require students to identify how those qualities apply academically, athletically, and personally.
TODAY'S topic at Logan is flexibility, and the discussion focuses on how doing things "outside the norm," such as being open to new ideas or accepting constructive criticism, not only enhances athletic performance but also can set someone apart in a classroom or workplace.
John Goulding, a veteran biology teacher and Logan's PASS instructor, says the class is harder work for the teacher than other classes because many of the exercises require broad knowledge of the student and tracking of his or her progress through the school year. For instance, a student is chosen to be "athlete of the day," which calls for discussion among the teacher and fellow students about how he or she applies the class's skills in other aspects of school life. Many, but not all, of the PASS students are on athletic teams.
The concept underlying the PASS program is ancient, says Joel Kirsch, president of the American Sports Institute. "We're trying to correct an error that occurred between the 7th and 5th centuries BC in Greece," when sports began to lose their status as an integral part of the humanities, he says. The separation was propelled by the changing nature of sports as money began to flow in and an emphasis on winning took over, he says.
Kirsch has nothing against professional sports and has worked in the past for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. But he's convinced the commercialization process has blinded educators to the real value of sports as a forum for teaching principles broadly applicable in education.
For students at Logan, the program is a magnet, drawing more than 100 applicants this school year, though there were only 25 slots.