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24 Mar, Friday
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Montreal Families

Sports study program gives kids a head start

Donna Gareau knows all about the challenges of raising kids who are very serious about sports. Two of her three boys, Arik, 14, and Joey 15, play on elite soccer teams. They spend every week-day afternoon and several evenings training. Most weekends are spent on the road driving to and from matches (many of which are held outside of the province).

In the midst of all this, the boys are expected to keep up with their schoolwork. “I’ve always told them that education comes first,” Gareau explains. But she adds that, despite the demands of their sport, the boys’ grades are fine because they are enrolled in a Sport-Études program at John Rennie High School in Pointe Claire.

Created almost 10 years ago, the program allows young athletes to attend classes in the morning and then train in the afternoon (15 hours per week). A typical school day starts at 8:20 a.m. and goes till just past noon. The athletes then have lunch before heading out to practice.

It’s a demanding program because students have to cover the same course work in much less time. In fact, they spend about 30 per cent less time in the classroom than their peers. And the athletes must maintain a 75 per cent average to stay in the program. Teachers also offer tutoring, support and follow up to ensure that students who have had to miss school because of a tournament, for example, won’t fall behind.

As practices and games eat up so much time, Gareau’s boys have to plan carefully when they will complete homework and projects. “The kids really have to want to be part of this,” Gareau says. “They have to be very structured, very organized and determined.”

While Sport-Études programs attract talented athletes, not everyone is hoping to become a professional player. Most kids join because they love a sport and want to pursue it more intensely. Although the program makes it possible for them to do so, it doesn’t mean it is all fun and games.

Gareau admits that sometimes her boys complain about being in Sports-Études. “They get tired,” she says. “They’ll have a bad week and say they don’t want to do it any more.” But a few days of rest puts things in perspective, helping everyone see what is gained by their participation. The program has allowed her boys to excel academically while pursuing their passion for soccer. (Joey is hoping to get a scholarship at a university in the United States.)

Russ Kelly, the program’s coordinator, notes that the school actually runs two programs under the Sport-Études banner: one is simply called Sport-Études and the other is called Sports Concentration. The Sport-Études program, officially recognized by Quebec’s Ministry of Education, is for elite level athletes who must meet qualifications set by their particular
sports federation.

In the Sports Concentration program, an athlete’s eligibility is determined by the school rather than by a sports federation. The students still follow the same compressed academic schedule and train the same number of hours.

Sports Concentration programs are created because oftentimes there are not enough students qualified to enrol in Sports-Études to justify the expense incurred by operating such a specialized program (i.e. a separate group of teachers, support services, etc.)

At John Rennie, Sport-Études is offered in boxing, diving, figure skating, gymnastics, hockey, ringuette, soccer, speed skating, synchronized swimming, swimming, tennis, track and field as well as water polo. The Sports Concentration program is offered for baseball, basketball, classical ballet, canoe-kayak, dance, equestrian (horseback riding) golf, hockey, judo, karate and skiing.

There are 140 students enrolled in Sport-Études and 175 in Sports Concentration. Kelly says both programs create a tightly-knit community within the school that appeals to many young people and their families.

The school holds an open house for the programs in the fall and interested students must write an exam and be interviewed. Most students apply before starting high school (Secondary I). However, students in higher grades may also apply.

Acceptance into the program is also done on a year-to-year basis. If grades fall below the required minimum, a student will have to miss training to attend tutoring sessions. If the schoolwork doesn’t improve, a young person will be asked to leave the program. Some students leave because of a long-term injury or burnout. “The sport you want to do at 12 or 13 may not be what you choose at age 16,” Kelly says. He estimates that about 70 per cent of participants will stay with the program until they graduate.

Young people must be self-starters, highly motivated and very organized. “They have to be scholar-athletes,” Kelly says, adding that participants almost never have time to do other extracurricular activities such as arts, music or dance.

Kelly says he is very honest with the students (and their parents) about future prospects as a professional athlete. Most kids in the program won’t go on to professional careers in their sport but some will become coaches while others will pursue the activity for fun.

But Kelly says the experience of pushing themselves to succeed in this demanding program has long-term benefits. “They learn that they can accomplish a lot. The program shapes them in a very positive way and we hope that they become better human beings because of it.”

For more information about these programs, call (514) 697-3210 or go to http://johnrennie.lbpsb.qc.ca (look under “Programs”)

For a list of Sport-Études programs sanctioned by Quebec’s Ministry of Education, go to www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/loisirSport.

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