Coast to coast, small schools are faced with the common, troubling challenge of finding new ways to keep education-based activities thriving. As small-town business and industry shrink, so do the enrollment numbers of schools in America’s rural communities.
NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner has listened to this sentiment time and time again from state association executive directors during NFHS Section Meetings.
Gardner said there are a variety of approaches to nurturing education-based activities back to a healthy state. However, the NFHS and its membership must constantly be aware of issues facing schools so that best practices can be discovered and shared.
“One of the Federation’s roles, as states try things and experiment, is to report on it and give other states an opportunity to know what has and has not worked so that they can try some of those things and best practices are shared,” Gardner said.
Regarding shrinking enrollments, those practices in Alaska, Idaho, Michigan and Nebraska have led to renewed community school pride thanks to a combination of coed programs, cooperative programs, and 6- and 8-player football teams.
“In Alaska, where a lot of smaller schools are difficult to travel to, schools have instituted coed volleyball,” Gardner said. “As numbers have gotten smaller and smaller, finding six girls plus substitutes to play on a girls volleyball team has been very hard.”
Of the Alaska School Activities Association’s (ASAA) 212 member schools, approximately 170 schools participate in basketball and volleyball as part of Class 1A, its smallest classification (up to 60 students). Among those, 120 schools feature fewer than 30 students, 92 have fewer than 20 students, and 70 schools have fewer than 10 students in grades 9-12. The ASAA’s bylaws allow for schools with either fewer than 30 students or 15 or fewer of a gender to have eighth-graders play volleyball and basketball.
"We have a lot of small, native Alaskan villages spread out over the state that are operating a K-12 educational program but are fairly limited in the times students are in high school,” said Billy Strickland, ASAA
executive director. “However, activities are very important to these communities and we wanted to come up with some systems that would make our smallest schools be able to more consistently field a sports team.”
Alaska’s attempt at alleviating participation problems – mix 6 volleyball – started more than 20 years ago in the Behring Strait School District. It is played on a boys-height net and requires a minimum of three girls to be on the court at all times. Once its popularity spread to other villages, the ASAA had enough schools participating in its western school districts to sanction it in 1997. Strickland said its southeastern schools have been playing mix 6 volleyball for nearly nine years.
“In your more remote settings where it may be hard to necessarily find a qualified wrestling coach, everyone’s played enough volleyball to have a qualified candidate willing to coach to the point where no one is getting hurt,” Strickland said. “The schools were looking for an activity. Basketball is wildly popular up here, but they were looking for an activity for the semester that did not involve basketball.”
Strickland said given the popularity of coed volleyball, the ASAA also recently added coed soccer for smaller schools. Unlike mix 6 volleyball, coed soccer does not conclude with a championship. It is also played in the fall when other schools are participating in cross country, football, swimming and volleyball.
In addition to receiving some leniency from its board of directors, the Idaho High School Activities Association (IHSAA) – also a Section 8 member – has encountered a rise in co-op programs to absolve its issues with
decreasing enrollment in its small schools.
IHSAA Executive Director Ty Jones said in spite of steady enrollment numbers statewide, small schools have reached a point where they lack a required number of participants for certain sports. Consequently, 75 of the IHSAA’s 160 member schools are now involved in one of the state’s 90 total co-ops, Jones said. Although spring sports numbers have yet to be determined, Jones estimated that 800-1,000 students wouldn’t be able to participate in an education-based activity without a co-op.
“I just think it’s logistics. If you have 120 kids in a school, you might get 60 or 70 percent of your kids in small schools that participate in one activity or another,” Jones said. “As farms get more automated and families move out of those areas into the suburbs or big towns, the 120-student school becomes a 90-student school.”
The Idaho board of directors has taken additional steps to aid enrollment issues by promoting co-op programs at the state’s annual fall administrative meeting.
“Our board’s been really good about loosening the requirements that some schools might have had 15 to 20 years ago,” Jones said. “It’s even to the point that it may have waived some classification numbers. That’s simply because in Idaho, a school may be 100 miles away from another school and need to co-op.”
Idaho has seen a surge in smaller football teams, with the state boasting 47 eight-player football teams. The emergence of smaller football teams in Idaho has – at least temporarily – thwarted the need for some co-ops, and has allowed communities to maintain an important source of pride.
“Football is very important in communities and they want to keep it,” Gardner said of the growth with 6- and 8-player teams. “As they lose enrollment and maybe not get enough kids out, a number of state associations have seen programs who played 11-player cut back to 9-player, 8-player or 6-player football, depending on whichever the state offers.”
The recent section meetings revealed even more support than numbers may indicate for such programs in Michigan and Nebraska. The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) had 60 schools (1,130 participants) playing 8-player football this past season, according to the 2017-18 NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey. The Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) fielded even more teams with 120 schools (2,957) playing 8-player football.
“A lot of our schools and their enrollments are getting smaller, but 8-player football has offered them a chance to keep football going and give them something that’s the fabric of so many of these communities. It brings everyone together for one night a week,” said Geoff Kimmerly, MHSAA spokesperson.
The MHSAA permitted its schools to play 8-player football in 2010, and was initially done to accommodate small schools with enrollments of 50 students or fewer. Kimmerly said the MHSAA went from one division of playoffs to two last season based on schools’ desires to incorporate the activity. He added that the state association has already confirmed 65 schools for the 2018-19 season.
“To be honest, it’s a pretty neat sport,” Kimmerly said. “It’s wide open, as you might imagine. The field is narrower but with six fewer players on the field, it allows for a little bit more offense.”
Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome, located off the shores of Lake Superior, plays host to the MHSAA 8-player High School Football Playoffs, and albeit a slightly different setup, “the fans still turn out,” Kimmerly said.
“Crystal Falls Forest Park is a school that has had a ton of success in 11-player football,” Kimmerly said. “This past season was its first trip to an 8-player championship and the stands of a Division II college stadium on its side of the field were nearly full. It’s football, maybe a little bit different, but once people in some of these communities get over that, they realize it’s still a great sport.”
Downsizing in Nebraska’s small towns has proven to have similar effects. The competition remains the same, according to NSAA Assistant Director Nate Neuhaus, who added that as opposed to having several large schools with large enrollments, the state now features a greater number of small, competitive schools.
“It seems this issue often circles back to football many times because football is such a numbers game with participation numbers,” Neuhaus said. “It fell under attack a few years ago and the participation numbers dropped.”
The NSAA, which previously had not sanctioned 6-player football since the 1997-98 season, will resume the sport under its watch in the 2018-19 school year with 31 teams participating.
Whether it’s from coed or co-op programs, or fielding smaller football teams, students can still reap the rewards of participation through untraditional practices. Finding an avenue for students to learn and develop as individuals is the primary goal of education-based activities, Strickland believes. When the ASAA sought answers for its small schools’ participation numbers, it wanted to find programs that allowed everyone to take part on a yearly basis. In this case, coed sports have given small schools something “they could count on.”
“Our rules don’t always help our schools have a competitive team, but they can have a team,” Strickland said. “Once you have a team in place, there is a benefit no matter how small your team is.”
Cody Porter is a graphic arts/communications assistant in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department.