The crowd surges to its feet roaring approval as the high school running back streaks down the field toward the winning touchdown. When you watch this scenario played out on football fields across the Twin Cities this fall, know that the players’ victories don’t come cheap: They’ve paid for the privilege, not just in terms of tough physical practices in the hot summer sun, but also in cold, hard cash.
A free public education in America is no longer free – at least not some of the activities that make learning fun. Athletic fees can be a big drain on the pocketbook, and in the Twin Cities area they vary widely district to district, from $290 in Anoka-Hennepin district to as little as $60-$90 in Minneapolis. And with economic recovery continuing at a snail’s pace, fees can put a big dent in a family’s budget.
“It’s an issue nationally,” said John Millea, media specialist for the Minnesota State High School League. “With so many [parents] unemployed, it’s a tough one.”
But there is help available. Many area school districts organize fundraisers and seek grants from foundations and private donations to raise money for families unable to pay the fees.
Millea said that before the economic downturn, many parents had never been in the position of needing to ask for help and, as a result, are unaware that it’s available. “It never hurts to ask,” he said.
Mark Sanders, athletic director at South High School in Minneapolis, said the requests for assistance with athletic fees have increased between 30 and 40 percent in the past three years.
“I’ve written a grant for $4,000 [to be used to provide financial assistance] the last two years, and we spent that just in the fall,” he said. “I never turn anybody down [from participating]. I ask if they can pay something. It’s important that they don’t get something for nothing. They need ownership, but in some circumstances, we will waive the fee.”
No student barred from playing
Without exception, all the athletic directors interviewed said no student would be barred from participating in a sport because of inability to pay athletic fees.
Tony Stewart, assistant athletic director at South High, encourages parents who find it difficult to ask for financial help to come in and talk about the situation.
“We’re not out to embarrass anyone,” he said. “If you can’t afford it, there’s always a way to work it out.”
At South, the athletic department has gotten creative with ways to help students pay athletic fees — by using sweat equity. According to Stewart, students pay the fees by doing a variety of jobs, such as picking up trash off the football field, helping out with the annual fall pancake breakfast or assisting athletic secretary Lynn Heldt in the office.
That’s what Natnail “Nate” Mamo was doing last week. Nate, an incoming freshman, took it upon himself to ask for help. “My friend told me you can work off the money, and I knew my mom needed help,” he said. “I had the time, so why not? I’d just be at home sleeping.”
Instead, Nate, 14, was helping Heldt with filing. “I really think they appreciate the opportunity,” Heldt said.
South High Tigers running back Khalil Ross-Jenkins, a junior, received help with fees last year and says he plans to ask for financial assistance this year as well. The $70 fee for football “is a lot of money,” said Ross-Jenkins, 16. “That’s groceries for a week.”
Ross-Jenkins’ mother, Brooke Ross, is a photographer and single mom of three. “It’s not that we can’t afford to pay anything, but [some assistance] always helps,” she said. “I don’t let my kids know what’s going on with us financially, but they know the value of a dollar.”
Some fees waived
Most school districts waive the fees for students who receive free or reduced lunches. This year at Hopkins High School, those students will be paying a fraction of the $230 athletic registration fee, according to Joe Perkl, assistant athletic director.
Perkl said he likes to see all the students “invested in some way.” For those receiving free lunch, the fee will be $20 and for those on reduced lunch it will be $115.The fee can be spread over four payments, Perkl said, “and if certain circumstances come up, we can work with those who can’t do that. We try to get everyone to be able to participate.” Hopkins’ major fundraiser for athletics is a golf tournament in late September.
In Osseo, athletic fees are waived for those receiving free and reduced lunch, according to athletic director Ray Kirch. Those receiving reduced lunch pay $90, half of the $180 fee. There are further discounts for families who have more than one child playing sports, and for those three-sport athletes, the third sport is free.
Brooke Ross applauds the athletic departments for working with families to make sports affordable for everyone.
“There are so many factors for kids to succeed in school. If they didn’t have anything else to do after school, if they had no structure, they’d find something to do,” something not so positive, she said.