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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Are extracurriculars the key to fighting skipping, isolation and phone addiction in kids? Spokane Public Schools hopes so

Origami, birdhouse -making, Rubik’s Cubes, the Salish language, podcasting, yoga. School leaders in Spokane are boosting extracurricular offerings to suit even the most niche of student interests.

Spokane Public Schools officials hope that boasting an extensive club list at their 68 schools will increase student engagement with each other and their studies, reversing several post-pandemic education trends like chronic absenteeism and an overreliance on cellphones.

Superintendent Adam Swinyard wants “every kid, every day, investing in something in real life outside of school,” he said.

Student attendance is one item on the seemingly endless list of the COVID-19 pandemic’s side effects on public education, with chronic absenteeism increasing throughout the state, according to data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In Spokane Public Schools last year, nearly 30% of the 29,500 students in the district were “chronically absent,” meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year. The year before COVID shutdowns, 20% of kids were chronically absent.

More non-academic activities could be a remedy to truancy, Swinyard said.

“We have to look at other strategies to engage kids, and we know a big part of that is creating a sense of belonging and connection,” he said.

Clubs and activities, where kids mingle with peers with similar interests and engage with entertainment outside of their cellphones, could be the answer. Swinyard said activities can be “a strong motivator” to get kids to class.

“I think most people that have had a traditional K-12 experience when they think back on, ‘What motivated me to come to school?’ It probably wasn’t the science textbook,” Swinyard said. “We hope the science textbook sparks an interest and a passion and maybe some direction towards a future career, but most people I think would probably say what motivated them to come to school was the relationships, the friendships, the activities they were involved in.”

Stephanie Splater, the district’s director of athletics and after -school programs, hopes by 2028, 80% of students are involved in an extracurricular activity. She sees the benefit beyond a student’s experience in school.

“A healthy and well person is going to be a student who thrives,” Splater said. “Whether it be in the trades, in liberal arts, education or in whatever pathway that they go on, we know that it enhances what they’re doing.”

The district has seen an increase in participation, inching closer to its involvement goal. Around 35% of kids currently participate in an activity outside of school hours, Splater said. That’s up 75% from last year, Swinyard said. Part of this increase could be due to increased data collected from the district as a part of their engagement initiative, Swinyard said.

In some demographics, like students in special education, that increase is doubled. Swinyard attributes this to the rise in unified sports offerings, those where students of all abilities participate. Next year, the district plans to offer unified badminton for middle schoolers and bowling and pickleball for high schoolers.

Other offerings for engaging students come directly from the kids themselves. Students asked for more volleyball, cheerleading, soccer and football available to younger ages. Asks for talent shows, spelling bees and science fairs also emanated from schools, Swinyard said.

Many clubs start as ideas from the students, some reflecting their interests: from knitting to improv to lampworking. Clubs have varying attendance, from humble gatherings of fewer than 10 pupils meeting to the thousands involved in the Hooptown basketball league.

“If every kid every day is going to be involved in something in real life after school, we know we’re going to need a wide continuum of experiences that would be interesting and exciting for kids,” Swinyard said.

Regardless of the club, students said they’ve seen the enrichment to their personal and school lives.

Every other Monday at Sacajawea Middle School, the staff lounge became a commercial kitchen filled with dozens of student chefs whipping up recipes like salad, pasta and cookies.

At the last club meeting of the school year, kids met to make a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and bacon, at the instruction of club adviser and English teacher Adrienne Wade.

“Salad” was used loosely, as some kids’ creations were mostly bacon.

Seventh-grader Louella Bailey founded the club in the fall, wanting space to experiment with new recipes with her friends.

“I just genuinely like cooking,” she said.

Others joined to learn the life skill, relieve stress from the day, make friends and grub at no cost to them. Wade has a budget from the school’s Associated Student Body fund to buy ingredients before each meeting.

“If you don’t really know how to cook later on in life, you’re kind of screwed,” Sacajawea sixth-grader Owen Kettleson said.

After hatching the idea, Louella asked Wade, her English teacher, how to make it happen. It was up to Louella to find a staff member to oversee the club (Wade), a space to host it in (the staff lounge), a time (after school every other week) and people to join (38 of Louella’s culinary-minded peers.)

The process was simple, stressful, but well worth it, Louella said. Slicing tomatoes and cooking bacon with her peers in the makeshift kitchen, she’s pleased her school was receptive to the idea.

“I’m kind of impressed, I just didn’t know that that was actually going to happen,” Louella said. “It was really just a small idea.”

Giving students agency over the clubs in their school not only ensures participation, but instills in them a sense of purpose, Wade said.

“It makes them feel like they matter, like they have some sense of ownership over the direction of their lives,” Wade said. “Being a teenager has always been hard, right? Anytime we can give them some choices over what they’re doing with their time, I think is going to create joy, especially when there’s food involved.”

While the skills of cooking club easily transfer to students’ worlds outside of school, some clubs instill lessons more abstractly applied in students’ lives.

At Longfellow Elementary, a club of fifth-graders is responsible for scripting, acting in, filming, editing and distributing their weekly video announcements. The short videos include the breakfast and lunch menu, school birthdays, a featured staff interview and bloopers, a school favorite.

The media club meets twice weekly before school, gathering in the library under the leadership of library information specialist Joseph Arnhold and first-grade teacher Taya Lavigne. This last school year, they also produced a school yearbook, a new offering for Longfellow.

The 10 pupils in media club learn teamwork and professionalism in creating something they distribute to their peers. Conflicts arise over page design or video planning, Arnhold said, requiring kids to compromise and mediate.

Starring in the video announcements gave fifth-grader Jaime Van Vlaenderen the confidence to try out for Longfellow’s talent show, an otherwise daunting endeavor.

“I make (videos) because it faces my fear,” Jaime said. “I enjoy it because it’s brought me more together with the people I know and all my friends.”

As recurring faces in weekly video announcements, the kids are schoolyard celebrities. Their reputation often precedes them; fifth-grader Marshall Jay said kids he doesn’t know will wave at him in the hall.

“When I was auditioning for the talent show, everyone knew my name,” Jaime said. “Before I was even doing anything, they all started clapping and cheering my name.”

Beyond feeding their ego, celebrity status teaches kids how to represent their school and program, an essential life skill in their future careers, Arnhold said. The recognition also contributes to the ethos of the school and gives younger kids something to try and achieve.

“For fifth-graders, they may not know some of the first- or second-graders, but they will know them,” Arnhold said. “It builds up a school culture, school community. They’ll be like, ‘That’s the kid I see!’ when they meet them at recess or they meet them at lunch.”

Kids said the designated creative space gives them “more free time to do things” that interest them, so they don’t mind getting to school at 7:30 to get to work.

“I love being at school; it just makes me happy,” Jaime said.

Otherwise, they’d be “just sitting on your couch, being bored,” or playing video games like Roblox, said fifth-grader Kaiden Kopepassah.

Students relish the opportunity to involve themselves in school outside of academics, and the younger, the better, they said. They’re looking forward to joining clubs in middle school and high school.

They’re in luck; secondary schools offer a diverse selection of activities, including yearbook and photography.

When the final bell rings at Lewis and Clark High School, students clamor through the halls, leaving the school largely vacant in minutes. Rather than make their way out of the downtown school, clusters of kids head to the library where they meet for games of chess, Dungeons & Dragons and card games under the supervision of library information specialist Mark Robbins.

Ten students shake off their backpacks and fill a table in the center of the library, lining it with chess boards and assigning pieces to their squares.

They quickly join games with each other or play out moves from a guidebook, chatting about their day. Nearing the end of the school year, they’re playing casually as opposed to preparing for tournaments that they enter throughout the year. Earn enough points in these competitions, they earn a letter in chess. Senior Ben Legare plans to add this to his letterman’s jacket.

Their weekly chess meetings give them time to debrief and wind down from school, as they tease each other and compare chess skills. There is some “passive” education involved, Legare said; chess activates his brain the same way math does.

“Learning chess just improves your learning in other areas,” Legare said, clubmates agreeing. “It improves your memorization and pattern recognition and all that.”

Long a popular activity now classified as a “co-curricular” because of the academic enrichment, music programs continue to thrive at Sacajawea Middle School, said band teacher Daniel Nord.

While conducting, he urges his pupils to be conscientious of the other musicians in their band, an intentional skill he said carries over outside of the music class.

“I always tell them we have three goals when we have a concert or an event,” Nord said. “Job one is to be good people, job two is to be great musicians and job three is they can do both.”

With 19 years as a music teacher, Nord said he’s seen firsthand the importance of giving kids a nonacademic space where they can thrive. He’s heard from past students that band was sometimes the only thing luring them to school.

“All those activities give them the connection that they so desperately need,” he said.

Washington State University Kinesiology Associate Professor Phillip Morgan has studied and leads classes in the principles of coaching. He said advisers’ positions as mentors is instrumental in providing a good role model for their pupils, whether it be coaching, conducting, or leading a club.

Morgan has coached different sports across various Palouse schools and considers extracurriculars to be “the frosting on the cake” of public education.

“It gives another opportunity for kids to get involved outside the curricular day, to excel and be a part of something else,” he said.

The key identifier that distinguishes activities from classwork is agency, he said. Kids can pick which extracurriculars to involve themselves in, giving them a sense of freedom. School is an expectation, sports or clubs are a choice.

“You came out here because you wanted to,” Morgan said he reminds his football team at Colfax High School, particularly important when he urges his kids to push the extra mile.

In another corner of the expansive Lewis and Clark library, a small group of kids huddles around a board covered in figurines and dice, reflecting on their latest campaign of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Junior Crowley Lamb assembled one of the groups, roping in friends from different classes. Residing in Airway Heights, Lamb doesn’t often see friends outside of school.

“I don’t get to hang out a lot with a bunch of people, so it kind of became a way for me to get all my friends in place and just to hang out for a couple hours,” Lamb said.

The teens gather weekly and adopt personas of characters they design. They role-play scenarios and act out a plot constructed at the hands of dungeon master Lamb. It can be cathartic, students said, to play other characters. Personas vary from an 8-year-old child that allows Reilly to “turn off his brain,” or the silliness senior Forrest Ulrich adopts as “Bones Malone,” a dapper “skeleton birdman” who hides a snail under his top hat.

“It’s a good opportunity to play characters that would do things and experience things that you would never be able to or be comfortable doing in real life,” Reilly said. “Like being able to process feelings, like of a really angry character or having an arc that makes you feel better like real life, or it can just be silly.”

The group’s longest-running storyline is over a year-and-a-half old; they celebrated with cake on the anniversary.

“I’ve met a lot of friends that I didn’t know before,” Reilly said. “You aren’t allowed to not talk to new people if you’re going to play D&D.”

As they wrap up one of their last meetings of the year, the group goes around the table and shares the conclusions to each of their characters’ story lines, over a year in the making. It’s like the end credits in a movie.

Their sunsetting campaign is especially emotional as a few group members prepare to graduate, leaving their friends for university in Seattle or Cheney. Though they’ll miss time spent in the library role-playing fantastical humanoid spiders, instilled in them are the memories and the confidence to make other friends in college.

While playing, they forged friendships especially precious to them emerging from pandemic school closures that shuttered their early high school days.

“Basically, without these dice, we’d all be sad losers rotting away in our rooms,” Reilly said.

Whether it be friends made over board games, cultural commonalties or similar career aspirations, kids of all ages used clubs to meet kids with common interests, even if that alone is the interest, they said.

“Without the campaign, I would not have met any of these people,” Ulrich said. “They are some of my absolute closest friends, I think ever.”