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City schools must think outside box

Commentary: Be flexible with educational model

As a parent of children struggling through rigorous academic programs in a world largely devoid of in-school instruction to access the curriculum, I understood the decision to continue virtual learning for Dunkirk City School District coming out of the Christmas holidays, even supported it. What could be more important than protecting children, teachers and school personnel? According to the district and countless other school districts throughout Western New York, it appears that the answer to this seemingly rhetorical question is athletics.

Dunkirk has held dozens of in-school athletic events this past fall, allowed practices to begin for “Low & Moderate” risk sports such as bowling and swimming to begin, and recently announced that “High Risk” indoor sports would begin as well to much media and local fanfare.

It should be noted at this point that those who know me and the students referenced above would undoubtedly agree that there literally is no larger supporter of youth athletics in the area than myself. I routinely spend countless hours in the car to provide these opportunities to my children because I know that these activities provide invaluable life lessons and social growth, I am far from an anti-athletics parent.

However, these benefits do not distract from the undeniable truth that local school districts, specifically the city schools throughout this pandemic have consistently forgotten or failed to focus on their primary mission which is to educate the youth of the area.

Countless hours and untold millions have been expended on non-core functions such as athletics, child care centers, etc while the core mission falls farther and farther behind and academic outcomes become worse and worse.

The “best” educational system offered to district students in sixth to 12th grades features two days a week of in-person instruction, two days of asynchronous remote instruction (read teach yourself as a student) and one “office hours” day and has only been offered sporadically due to the pandemic, including not since before the holiday break.

Teachers have often seemed forced to “stick round pegs in square holes” saddled with imperfect technology solutions, and limited access to programs designed by professionals in remote learning and consistently parents complain that this year their children “aren’t learning anything.”

All of these developments are troubling on their own, now consider that these institutions of learning are consciously deciding to expend time and resources on “EXTRA” curricular activities at a time when the primary activities are struggling.

I often tell my children “The answer is often in the question, listen”. In this case the answer is in the label, “EXTRA” activities are extra and not one penny or minute should be expended on them until the primary mission is optimized. Is two days the best we can do in person due to safety concerns? If so is there science to support that basketball operating 7 days is somehow more safe?

Our schools have to be closed every Wednesday for cleaning, are the gyms, bowling alleys etc., also closed one day a week for cleaning? We can safely bus our athletes to places such as Olean and Allegany for hours on end but we cannot house these same students safely in our academic buildings?

I’ll leave this discussion with two facts. In the last adopted budget on the Dunkirk City School District website the athletics budget was approximately $332,000, not including transportation if I read it correctly.

I’m left to wonder if the repurposing of $332,000 could improve the educational outcomes of the students, purchase online programs, hire aides for teachers, or a litany of other improvements to help teachers teach subjects like math, science, history, etc. My son had the opportunity to play soccer this fall and it was a great experience for him.

However, consider this: he played approximately the same number of soccer games as he’s had in-person instruction this year — 11 games to 13 in person class days, factoring in practices the school has provided him nearly three times the amount of in-person instruction on how to play soccer as it has in Trigonometry, and English.

My parents offered me a couple relevant lessons I’m hoping the Dunkirk Board of Education might consider, specifically “Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should” and “If your friends went and jumped off a bridge would you?”

Just because other districts are offering athletics doesn’t mean we should rubber stamp an approval the job of school leadership is to lead our students, not follow other districts.

Kory Ahlstrom is a Dunkirk resident.

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