From the Editor: It’s time to dive into adapted athletics; Elk River has been idle while state has led the nation in creating options for disabled

Activities directors for high schools in Elk River, Rogers and Zimmerman have expressed an interest for dipping their toes in the water of the wonderful world of adapted athletics by the start of the 2016-17 school year.

That’s great news, but with the addition of gym space coming in a couple of parts of the school district, thanks to the recently approved referendum, it might be time for more of dive-head-first approach.

Minnesota leads the nation in adapted opportunities for cognitively and physically disabled youth, but District 728 has been idle on this front for the past three decades while school districts across the metro have developed successful three-season models that band high schools and their athletic programs together to make it happen.

District 728 activities directors will be back before the Elk River Area School Board on Monday to talk about their hopes and dreams for the future of their departments and programs. They are fresh off a comprehensive study that looks at all aspects of their operations and answers the questions about how they can improve. They presented that in August, and now they have begun sharpening their pencils on associated costs of their vision.

The idea on the table is to consider a bowling program, which does not require any dedicated school space. It requires a neighborhood bowling alley. This could be the Elk River Area School District’s first foray into adapted athletics. It would be a good move.

Bowling is being considered elsewhere in the state for youth on the autism spectrum. Many of these children and teens have an IQ higher then than the cut-off for cognitively impaired athletic programs sponsored by the Minnesota State High School League.

But it would not be the best move. District 728 high schools would miss out on many of the benefits that adapted athletics have had on school culture elsewhere when the programs are folded into the existing high school program.

The biggest initial roadblock can be designating valuable indoor space for adapted athletics, but after talking with activities directors and coaches in Maple Grove and Centennial, it can be done.

There are also cooperative programs in the north metro and beyond Anoka-Hennepin, Mounds View, Buffalo, Stillwater and St. Cloud. With the passage of the November bond referendum and some new gym space coming online, there’s a window of opportunity to strategically shuffle the deck that will vanish as programs move in and take ownership over the new (and existing) spaces.

“It’s always hard to find space,” said Lambert Brown, the activities coordinator for Maple Grove High School. “It’s hard to find space for everything.

“The basketball program would like to never have to move out of its (normal) practice space, but we work with everyone. Adapted sports is a worthwhile program, so we make it work.”

For District 279, that means Maple Grove houses adapted floor hockey in the winter. Osseo High School houses (indoor) adapted softball played with a whiffle ball in the spring. And Park Center, houses indoor adapted soccer in the fall. It actually works out great that way for the athletes, according to their coach Kelli Waalk-Gilbertson.

“(The athletes) all get one season at their home high school,” she said. “That’s a really cool thing for the athletes and the school.

“It has such a positive impact at each high school and has created some really neat connections with students and staff.”

The adapted athletics programs are routinely recognized for their accomplishments at pep fests, helping typical athletes become fans of disabled athletes and disabled athletes be better fans of typical varsity sports teams.

At Centennial, the North Suburban Cougars were the star of a pep fest a couple of years ago when its cooperative team featuring Centennial and Spring Lake Park won the adapted floor hockey state title.

Arne Duncan, the secretary of education for the U.S., released guidelines last year that require schools to make reasonable accommodations to ensure all students, regardless of disability, have equal access to sports programs in the schools.

The idea of adding adapted bowling might get the district’s toes wet, but the diving-in approach might actually be the more effective way of getting into it. And disabled athletes should not have to wait another decade for adapted athletics to take root in their schools.

Minnesota’s push started in the 1970s — without the hand of the federal government directing them. Parents, coaches and administrators in this state ramped up the efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s and pushed for adapted athletics to be recognized by the Minnesota State High School League. They did in 1992.

There are now separate divisions for those with cognitive disabilities and those with physical disabilities to ensure an even playing field. There are more than 1,700 registrations in a season throughout the state — more than doubling the registration numbers since 1994.

Playing sports at any level — club, intramural, or middle school and high school interscholastic — can be crucial for the success of students’ academic careers. That is true for the disabled as well. It promotes socialization, the development of leadership skills, focus, and, of course, physical fitness. Start-up costs will be a challenge, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Centennial High School has been involved in adapted athletics for more than two decades. Brian Hegseth, the activities director, said the program was just getting started when he arrived in the district.

It was a 1991 proposal that emanated at a Fridley school that got it going. It created a four-team cooperative for students cognitively impaired between the high schools in Fridley, Columbia Heights, Spring Lake Park and Centennial. They were the North Suburban Tigers, and their colors were black and gold.  Then in 1994, the cooperative group moved into the Minnesota State High School League for competition, Hegseth said.

Columbia Heights and Fridley dropped out from the cooperative, but Spring Lake Park hung on and they are paired to this day. The combined team became the North Suburban Cougars, featuring red and white uniforms.

They get about 15-16 athletes a season. The players range from high functioning to fairly low functioning cognitively.

“It’s amazing what the program does for our school,” Hegseth said. “It’s a varsity sport, and our student body is fabulous with these kids.”

Centennial High School takes advantage of a former junior high to offer the program. One head coach and two assistants lead all three teams.

It’s time for District 728 — Elk River, Rogers and Zimmerman high schools — to take the plunge. — Jim Boyle, editor