The latest annual report of the Jefferson City school district's activities department detailed new initiatives the department put in place this past school year to help students improve their grades, while also getting students interested in sports and activities earlier.
"We've seen a noticeable spike in academic achievement," Mark Caballero, the district's director of activities, told the Board of Education at its meeting Monday. Caballero credited the progress to an academic support structure the department developed and implemented in the 2016-17 school year.
Caballero told the News Tribune there had been some support before for students participating in activities who were struggling with their grades, but there hadn't been a unified structure.
What changed last year was coaches were kept informed and involved in students' academic progress.
About every two weeks last year, he said, the activities department ran reports to identify participating students with failing or deficient grades — which meant about 40 reports every other week. With this information, coaches and directors met with students, and as a group, they produced academic plans of action to "restore grades to (a) satisfactory level as soon as possible," the report states.
These plans of action were sent electronically to students, and the students were responsible for communicating with their teachers to determine a specific plan to improve their grades and a timeline to do so.
Those plans were submitted electronically to the activities department for review, and the following two weeks were granted to students to make the necessary improvements in their grades.
Caballero said the feedback he and the department got from building administrators was students needed to have responsibility for their grades.
Additionally, the report presented to the board stated "the coaches and activities director are making every effort to communicate this academic information home if students don't show improvement in their grades."
"There's no excuse for a parent not to know," because they can access that information on any device, Caballero said. He said communications with parents have improved to the point where the department doesn't need to have as many face-to-face meetings.
He commended Jefferson City High School Principal Bob James and Associate Principal Joe Lauchstaedt for granting access to teachers in their meetings as they developed the support system.
"I think that was a really big part to help develop relationships so I understand what those teachers are going through as department leaders," Caballero told the board Monday. "That was very good for us because it established more credibility on the building level about how sincere we are to help our kids. I think for the years to come, it's going to flourish into a great thing."
He believes, too, the K-12 initiative the activities department implemented last year will similarly lay ground work to be built upon in the future.
The K-12 initiative is designed to get more physical education teachers from the elementary through high school grade levels to be coaches, to be that much more involved in their students' lives when it comes to wellness and health, at an earlier age.
"That's something that hadn't happened here," Caballero said. "We have a lot of room to grow there."
The hope is that more involved coaches — especially on the elementary level — will expose more students to more activities earlier, thereby increasing program participation later and fostering healthy lifestyles and peer relationships sooner. The goal through the initiative is "to get the right people in the right spots," he said.
"We have to do a really good job about getting our information out." He added, "We can't just promote it on the screen" but have to get out in front of students.
Some other information of note from the report:
The number of students who tested positive for banned substances declined again last year. Of a total 2,323 bulk and random drug tests for high school activities participants last year, 13 students had positive test results that led to consequences, compared to 18 in the 2015-16 school year and 24 the year before. The district tests for marijuana, cocaine, opiates and amphetamines.
Bulk testing is announced ahead of time, effectively giving students two to three months notice, though typically students and parents already know the date because it's the Saturday after the first allowable practice for a season, Lou Mazzocco, the district's assistant activities director, told the board Monday.
"We're not trying to trick anybody; we're trying to let kids know, 'If you want to participate for us, this is something you've got to do and this is when it's going to be done,'" Mazzocco said.
On random testing days, a list is produced, and students are randomly called out from class. Single-stall restrooms are used to give students privacy, and no one else is in the room.
While not included in the report, Mazzocco explained to the board that per policy, the department is no longer required to take a urine sample for drug tests. Last year, the department had the ability to use an oral fluid swab if necessary. Mazzocco had the authority to designate which method to use, which gave the district the flexibility to accommodate any concerns about sample collection.
In the report's list of grade points averages and academic ineligibilites per activity or team, choir had the lowest team and varsity grade point averages with 2.963 and had the most academic ineligibilities with 18. Speech and debate had the next most with four students declared academically ineligible in the year, followed by orchestra, band, boys and girls track and field, and wrestling with three students each.
Caballero explained, for choir in particular, students' freshman year continues to be the department's biggest challenge: "In almost everything we do, it's the hardest year." He said more students try choir early in high school, at a time when they're still learning how to achieve and maintain academic success.
Eighteen fall, winter and spring teams were recognized last year by the Missouri State High School Activities Association for "outstanding scholastic achievement," or having varsity team grade point averages of 3.25 or higher. Three more teams were recognized for "distinguished scholastic achievement" — varsity team GPAs of 3.0-3.24.