Students, parents respond emotionally as districts ponder cuttin - KCTV5

Students, parents respond emotionally as districts ponder cutting gymnastics

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An entire sport is on the chopping block at two area school districts, and students and parents will have their chance to sound off Monday night. (KCTV5) An entire sport is on the chopping block at two area school districts, and students and parents will have their chance to sound off Monday night. (KCTV5)

OVERLAND PARK, KS (KCTV) - Emotions are running high after an announcement that two area school districts will be recommending an end to their gymnastics programs.

The Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts say the main problem is declining participation. Each held Q&A sessions Monday night and got an earful.

Richard Kramer, SMSD’s student activities director, began by explaining the decision wasn’t about money. It was about trouble securing long-term coaching staff and generating interest in the program.

He said there just wasn’t enough excitement about the program to keep it going, but after two hours, it was clear. There may not be a lot of girls in the program, but their passion about it was sky high.

“You’re just taking it away,” said one student gymnast, as the girls around her sobbed.

She explained she was on the verge of suicide the year before, but her coach and teammates brought her back to a good place. Two other girls gave accounts of life-changing friendships that were nearly inaudible through their sobs. One said she had been bullied and found acceptance with her teammates.

"This is a family,” explained a former gymnast with the Shawnee Mission Northwest Class of 2011. “If you take that away, these girls, it's going to be hard to find that niche."

"These girls rely on one another, and they rely on us coaches as outlets when they can't talk to their parents,” said Ann Heinlein, who coaches for Shawnee Mission North and Shawnee Mission West.

A mother later stood up, also speaking through tears.

Her daughter, Anna Sarol, was a gymnast at Olathe Northwest last year. She fell off the uneven bars during practice and was paralyzed. This year, she returned as a team manager.

"Physically, psychologically, it's her therapy,” said Eloisa Sarol. “Don't take it away please."

Anna Sorel was in the audience in her wheelchair. She had been a gymnast since she was 5 years old. Her injury was a freak accident, she said, and being with her former teammates, staying around the environment, has been immensely important.

"I feel like this group of gymnasts and teammates, they're the only one I feel like see through my disability,” said Anna Sarol, “and that's, like, really hard to say."

Several districts have cut their programs in the past 15 years. There are now just five Kansas school districts offering gymnastics: Shawnee Mission, Olathe, Lawrence, Emporia and Newton. There were about half as many schools and half as many students involved in 2015 as there were in 2000.

Girls who want to compete on a national level have turned to private club gyms. Some have speculated that phenomenon is behind the decline in numbers for school programs.

"In high school, numbers have dwindled," said Heinlein. "It just is what it is. The club atmosphere is very strong and the coaches are very strong and quite frankly, you're not going to get real far with high school gymnastics. You can't get a scholarship, they don't recruit in high schools because the caliber is not typically there. They recruit in a club atmosphere”

But parents and students told Kramer a club gym cannot replace what a school sport offers.

The private gyms are expensive. They demand extensive practices, up to four hours per day. The school team allows their children to participate in the sport in a way that allows some balance. They can be home in time for dinner. They have time left for homework. They love the sport, not because they hope it will bring them a college scholarship or an Olympics bid, but for all the other reasons that make school sports rewarding.

Kramer made it clear to his audience that it’s not about money. It’s about participation.

"In an Olympic year, our numbers went down,” said Kramer.

Last year, he said, there were 58 girls in gymnastics at Shawnee Mission Schools. This year, it's 41. In comparison, the district has 61 girls in golf, 70 in bowling and 118 in tennis.

But Heinlein says the small size of the program makes it more tight-knit. The family extends beyond just a single school to all the local schools.

As it ended, with girls lobbying him for one more year, Kramer said he was certainly moved by an excitement and passion for the program he hadn't seen before.

"Now how can we go out if we continue to build and let that excitement go not just here but out into the hallways and where girls will see the value that these girls see?" Kramer asked, suggesting that if those who care most about the sport can get others involved and increase participation, the program might stay.

He said he will be bringing what he heard back to the other administrators for discussion.  

A letter sent to parents last week said the district “will be recommending” to the school board to end of the program after this season, but the district staff has not made that recommendation to the board yet, and it is not yet on any published board agenda.

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