The gymnasium at Image Elementary School isn’t particularly large and doesn’t usually host fiery competitions that draw a crowd.
And yet, on a Wednesday afternoon in November, dozens at Image sat transfixed on 10-year-old volleyball talent Jalen Elies. His last few serves had shown prowess. The moment he struck the ball, the crowd erupted as Jalen’s young opponents scrambled to keep the ball off the floor. With every hit that followed, the cheers only grew louder.
This fall, elementary students at Image and eight other elementary schools in Evergreen Public Schools played in a new, free six-week volleyball league sponsored by parents and community donors. Organizers say in addition to providing weekly after-school fun, the league helps older elementary students preparing for the emotional jump to middle school. Funding, however, remains a challenge.
Anna Boyd, a parent and program organizer, said she was motivated to provide an early opportunity in organized sports for free in lieu of club or recreational leagues where a cost of entry and travel might be a barrier for some families.
“Kids want to do it all,” said Boyd, adding that sports were important to her as a child. “But everything costs money, and you usually have to seek it out. If it’s not offered at the school, a lot of them just don’t have access to these sports programs. For me, I just wanted to find a way.”
This season, more than 200 students in fourth and fifth grade participated in weekly volleyball scrimmages — each one as hotly contested as Image’s. At the end of the season, all nine participating schools engaged in a final tournament Nov. 18. Orchards Elementary School ultimately proved victorious.
Organizers say the program needs more donations to keep it going, let alone expand it.
The first major gift — $2,700 — came back in January ahead of the first organized season, which was for basketball. Boyd and co-leader Nancy Brown, a counselor at Pioneer Elementary, used donation funds to pay for transportation, building rental fees and basic supplies.
Enormous initial success and interest propelled the group to launch a soccer league that spring, followed by the volleyball league this fall. As many as 15 schools are expected to participate in the next basketball season this January, Boyd said.
A major challenge, however, is finding ways to pay teachers serving as temporary coaches. As of now, many of them are volunteering their time. Though Boyd said Evergreen has supported the program by providing the space, there’s no additional money in the district’s budget to expand it further.
“That’s the biggest challenge, just getting people to stay in these roles,” Boyd said. “These are teachers who are working full-time and then coming over and doing this on their own accord.”
More than sport
While the mini-league was an opportunity to hone the young skills of promising athletes such as Jalen, organizers said they sought to give elementary students an early experience with organized sports and the host of social-emotional benefits they present.
For fourth- and fifth-grade students, the impending jump to middle school can challenge their sense of community, teachers and counselors said. Organized sports can often help bridge that transition.
“We’re thinking, how can we prepare kids here to at least feel they have an opportunity to connect?” said Nancy Brown, who worked to develop a curriculum built into the weekly scrimmages. “Sports has always been a natural way to learn how to work with a team.”
In addition to teaching kids how to dribble or serve, for example, each meeting or scrimmage focuses on a different character trait that coaches hope to instill in the young children. For example, one week they might focus on teaching a student how to find self-confidence or how to set personal goals.
“As kids are entering into middle school, we were seeing that more and more of our students were feeling anxious or concerned about how to participate in after-school sports because their experiences were so limited,” Brown said. “So, let’s build those basic skills, let’s show kids how to be on a team, hopefully that makes them feel more confident trying out for what they want.”