What to do when winning means closing: Parent wants discussion about football-related school closure in Swain
Swain County students may have been cheering when the high school football team’s trip to the state semifinals meant everyone got out early that day, but not all parents felt the same way. Elizabeth Wilmot, a Bryson City resident with two children who attend elementary school, was angry when she received an automated call from the school system on Tuesday, Dec. 3, informing her that school would be dismissed at 12:30 p.m. that Friday, Dec. 6.
“It definitely sends a message that sports are king and that’s what we’re going to put first,” she said.
Wilmot felt passionately enough about the decision that she wrote a letter to the editor for the Smoky Mountain Times. After it was published, she found that she was not alone.
“I’ve had a lot of positive feedback coming from this letter,” she said.
But Steve Claxton, a spokesman for Swain County Schools, said the decision was not simply a thoughtless bow to the reign of football, but rather a thoughtful choice. Of the roughly 600 students who attend Swain County High School, 129 are on the football team or involved in band or cheerleading, which also participate at the game. Factor in the parents and coaches who double as school staff, he said, and you wind up with a pretty empty school.
“In a small community, everything that happens in the school affects pretty much everybody,” said Gerald McKinney, Swain County School board member and former teacher and principal in the district.
“I think the administration and the superintendent made the right call,” said Chuck McMahon, board chairman.
While the announcement may have seemed like short notice to parents, whether the team was going to make state semi-finals hinged on the outcome of the previous weekend’s playoff game.
When they got back to school on Monday, Superintendent Sam Pattillo called school board members and advised them of the decision to close.
While McKinney said he understands Wilmot’s viewpoint, he maintained that the school rarely has athletics-related schedule changes and that support of extra-curricular activities is vital to the school system’s health.
“It’s rare,” he said. “It’s extremely rare. Maybe one time every five or eight years.”
The schedule had to be altered in this particular instance, he said, because the game against West Montgomery High School, which kicked off at 7 p.m., was four hours away. The 129 students who were participating directly would not have made it on time if they had to wait until 3 p.m. to leave, and the school would have had to cope with the exodus of staff members who also wanted to use their time off to attend.
And the desire of the team’s fans to attend the game also factored into the decision.
“I know that numerous teams have to travel great distances for playoff games, and I don’t ever recall ever seeing a game without students there, do you?” Claxton said in an email.
While Wilmot understands the rationale for canceling afternoon classes at the high school, she takes issue with the decision to also cancel them for the other 1,400 students who attend Swain County Schools.
“I want my children to be in school, and all these half days are really taking away from that,” she said.
McKinney, who worked five years as the district’s transportation director, said that busing was the main driver behind the county-wide cancellation. Swain County doesn’t have separate bus systems for its elementary, middle and high schools, so giving high schoolers an early release while keeping elementary and middle school students until 3 p.m. would have created transportation difficulties.
“You got one bus system,” he said. “You have to run the whole bus system when you do that.”
But, Wilmot pointed out, early releases still count as whole days for the school calendar, meaning that such decisions reduce the time students spend in class. That means it’s something that should be talked about, but, she said, “Nobody’s talking about it.”
Jim Casada, local columnist and Swain County native who has earned his place in the Swain County High School Athletic Hall of Fame, contacted Wilmot to express his support of her position, also questioning the district’s priorities.
“Frankly, I’m deeply troubled by priorities in my highland homeland,” he said, “and this comes from someone who has been actively involved in sports over much of his lifetime.”
McKinney, however, holds a different view. As a former educator, he believes in education, but he also believes in the power of extracurriculars to support it. Students who are involved in school activities, he said, consistently have better attendance and better grades.
“I have no issue with a parent that wants the best for their kids,” McKinney said. “But I’m also a believer in after-school events. I’m a firm believer in athletics and band and drama.”
His years in the school confirmed that.
“I observed while I was there that if the football season went well, it seemed like the whole school year went well,” he continued.
McKinney said that he doesn’t recall the school schedule ever being altered for a sport besides football, but he said that’s because it hasn’t been necessary. None of the other athletic teams have taken nearly as many trips to final and semi-final games as the football team, he said, and no other sport involves the number of students that football does.
For instance, he said, basketball involves 14 players, two coaches and the cheerleading team, but no band. By contrast, the football team alone includes 56 students.
“If basketball were to get that far, it’s doubtful we would [have an early release,” he said. “You don’t have the numbers.”
Wilmot, however, believes that the community should at least start discussing the best way for athletics and academics to coexist.
“We want to see everybody succeed,” she said. “I love that Swain County’s awesome at football, but I wish we would try other solutions. I just wish we would start a conversation about what’s needed.”