The coaches, teachers and administrators at Sandburg Middle School already knew that. In fact, creating opportunities to make friends and build community was part of the reason Fairfax County Public Schools decided to introduce sports to its middle schools for the first time this year.
“It’s really great to see students bring this idea of camaraderie and teamwork into the classroom, into the school, and that’s where we’re hoping that’s going to build that momentum,” Principal Eric Underhill said.
Fairfax launched its inaugural middle-school sports program last month, welcoming thousands of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to their school’s cross-country teams.
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District spokeswoman Julie Moult said middle schools didn’t offer athletics because community sports programs in the area were so robust and popular. But Fairfax Superintendent Michelle Reid, who came to the district last year, said she wanted a more equitable policy. Now students can exercise and bond with their neighbors without pay-to-play community sports, which often require fees and transportation.
In March, the school board agreed to allocate $600,000 in the budget for middle-schoolers to hit the ground running — literally. So far, the cross-country season has been well received by students and their parents, school leaders said. Nearly 2,000 students participated in the district’s first meet last Saturday. The season runs through October. Then track will begin in the spring.
The introduction of middle-school sports comes as schools around the country face a mental health crisis, fueled in part by the isolation and disruption students felt during the pandemic. Nationally, 70 percent of schools have reported an uptick in students asking for mental health services since the pandemic started.
In Fairfax County, about 17 percent of sixth-graders reported feeling stressed most or all of the time, and about 62 percent reported experiencing stress a little or some of the time, according to the county’s 2023 youth survey, conducted in November and December 2022. Nearly 30 percent of sixth-graders reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row that they stopped doing usual activities.
Reid said she hopes athletics will boost mental and physical wellness in the district’s 23 middle schools.
“It’s just part of a healthy lifestyle as we think about our young people moving into adolescence and then graduating and becoming citizens,” Reid said in an interview. “We’re in a mental health crisis in many ways, and also a fitness crisis in this country. It’s really important for students to be active and engaged, and we’re just excited for that possibility.”
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At practice on Monday, Moore explained the day’s routine. Don’t go too fast, he said. Aim for four laps around the track and field. He knew that many of the nearly 50 runners present had competed in the first meet just days earlier.
“Hey, ‘panthers’ on three. Let’s be really loud,” he said. “1, 2, 3 …”
“Panthers!” the kids shouted, before their Nikes hit the asphalt.
Studies show the benefits that physical activity can have for school performance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physically active students tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance and classroom behaviors. Studies also show that participating in youth sports can provide a wide range of social benefits, such as improving mental health, building confidence, and developing key skills like teamwork and leadership.
Tyesha Augustin, Sandburg’s athletic coordinator, said the school is already seeing the positive effects of the cross-country team. Students run up to her in the hallway asking how they can get involved, and parents are just as eager to find ways to help. She sees the runners sitting together at lunch — friends they may not have met otherwise. She’s heard the kids encourage each other and seen many building confidence with every practice.
“Kids now have a reason to be seen and feel seen,” Augustin said. “It’s not just, ‘I’m a student at the school,’ it’s ‘I’m a student-athlete,’ and there’s benefits that can take you down the line.”
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Meaghan Afrifah, 12, didn’t really like running when she first joined the team, but the best friends she’s made in the first weeks of practice have made her want to keep coming back.
“I like meeting new people that are actually really cool,” Meaghan said. “And I like to see people outside, like, not using their phones.”
Reid said the school district plans to continue investing in middle-school sports and hopes to expand the offerings in coming years.
Middle-school sports are fairly common. Nearby Prince William and Arlington counties offer a variety of sports including tennis, football, soccer, basketball and wrestling. In the District, middle-school students can choose from a range of sports including bowling, archery and baseball.
Other school districts are just now following suit. Baltimore City Public Schools piloted a middle-school sports program last year before launching the full program this year, and Alexandria City Public Schools, which does not offer middle-school sports, floated a proposal last month to introduce athletics to its middle schools as well.
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“Coming out of covid, I really believe that our kids need more programming,” James Parker, athletic director at ACPS, said at the Sept. 21 school board meeting. “They need more opportunities to be able to learn leadership, healthy habits, those types of things, and also be around positive role models, stay off the streets.”
The board will consider funding for the proposal, which would add 10 sports over a three-year period, during budget discussions in the spring.
Back at Monday’s practice, after about an hour of running in the lingering heat, the students’ feet slowed to a walk. They paced the track with their hands on their heads. They sprawled out on the green turf, stomachs rising and falling, still heavy with breath.
Practice was coming to a close, but not before a water break and catch-up with friends.
Claire Brown, 13, joined the team at Sandburg to stay active during offseason for lacrosse, which she plays outside of school. Running was not her “strong suit,” but she said she can already feel herself building endurance and getting better.
The encouragement from friends on the team has helped.
“They’d be, like, hyping you up, and they’re like: ‘Oh, come on. You got you got a little more left in you,’” Brown said. “It’s just like everybody encouraging everybody. ‘You got a little more left. You can do this, push a little harder. You got there.’”