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Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)

 

WORCESTER - The district's new middle school sports program debuting this coming school year is starting to take shape over the summer break.

Made possible by a late $70,000 transfer in the school system's fiscal 2019 operating budget last month, middle school athletics are tentatively set to start out with boys and girls volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball/softball in the spring, according to school officials. Those sports were determined through a survey, as well as based on available seasonal facility and field space.

The teams, which will represent the district's four middle schools and seventh- and eighth-graders at University Park Campus School and Claremont Academy, are slated to compete in inter-district play starting out. But Worcester's teams also could take on other school systems in the region in the future, said the district's athletic director, David Shea.

"We just want to get things moving" this year, he said. "We know having kids involved in after-school sports is so beneficial for them - we're excited about this."

The push to bring back organized athletics at the middle school level began in earnest two months ago, when community leaders urged the School Committee to consider the idea. Committee members immediately gave their support, and asked the district's administration to quickly put together a budget proposal in time for last month's fiscal 2019 school budget vote.

Since then, an advisory committee made up of school and city leaders has been working out the specifics of the middle school sports program, as well as planning its future sustainability. The panel has been looking into the possibility of securing team sponsorships, either

from businesses, colleges, or some other organization, and raising private money in general for the program.

"I just don't want what's happened in the past, where we have programs but then they get cut because of lack of funding," said Worcester School Committee member John Monfredo, who is on the advisory committee.

Mr. Monfredo said he helped set up a public-private softball team at Forest Grove Middle School last year, for example, that he said was successful, and a possible model for the district-wide middle school sports program. In the case of the Forest Grove team, all the outside help that was really needed was donations of uniforms and equipment, he said, as well as funding to hire umpires.

Former City Councilor Tony Economou, who is also on the planning committee, said a possible idea is to create a special account for the new middle school sports league that would hold privately raised money. That mechanism, he added, could help ensure the program "isn't held hostage by the (district) budget process" each year.

In the meantime, the $70,000 set aside in the budget for the initiative for the 2018-19 school year will be enough to cover coaches' salaries for the year, according to the district administration.

Worcester school Superintendent Maureen Binienda said the inaugural year of middle school sports will help determine the viability of maintaining the program in future years as well.

"Of course you'd like to expand it," she said. But there are still unresolved questions surrounding the logistics of the initiative "that we have to figure out now."

Mr. Shea, who said interest in the new league is high enough so far that team tryouts will likely be needed, was optimistic about the program's future, however.

"Hopefully this will grow into other sports coming into play" at the middle schools over the next few years, he said.

Contact Scott O'Connell at Scott.O'Connell@telegram.com Follow him on Twitter @ScottOConnellTG

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