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Roughly 75 people turned out for a Monday, July 22, meeting to discuss whether Park High School should leave the Suburban East Conference. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

Park High School nears decision on conference switch

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sports Cottage Grove, 55016
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

A conference change could increase athletic participation and help boost school pride among Park High School students.

Those were among the opinions some parents and former students offered to Park administrators as they mull whether to leave the Suburban East Conference in favor of a new high school conference.

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Roughly 75 people turned out for a community input meeting last week on a proposal to leave the SEC and join other mostly first-ring St. Paul suburban schools beginning in the fall of 2014. Some parents said kids aren’t going out for Park sports because they don’t think they can win, and a defeatist view of Park sports has spread beyond just high school athletes.

The community meeting was one of the final steps before administrators decide whether to bring Park’s proposal to the South Washington County School Board for support or formal approval in August. The timeline is tight, administrators said, as Park and other schools will have to know by early September if they want to be part of the new conference next year.

Park Principal Kerry Timmerman said the school is eyeing the move in an attempt to grow student participation in athletics, create an appropriate “competitive balance” and because success in school activities outside the classroom has a positive effect on the building culture.

While administrators have talked about a move, coaches have been engaged in the discussion and community input has been sought, Timmerman cautioned that no decision has been made.

“This is not finalized,” he said. “As of this point the (conference) has not even been finalized.”

No coaches were at the recent community meeting, at Timmerman’s request. Their presence could make parents uncomfortable expressing their opinions about Park athletics, he said.

However, Timmerman and Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel have talked with coaches about the change. Timmerman said there is a feeling among coaches that the lack of participation in some Park sports is because students don’t think the teams will compete and win. If Park was in a competitive conference, student interest in athletics would increase, the coaches said.

‘Good for participation’

Brenda Oberding said leaving the SEC for a new conference with a more level playing field would be good for the school and the community. Oberding, who played sports at Park before graduating in 1992, said she moved back to Cottage Grove with her husband to raise their family. They have children in youth sports, and said she has noticed that some kids aren’t proud of Park sports.

More student involvement could breed better athletic success, Oberding said, and that in turn generates more community pride for the school and its athletics.

“I believe it’s good for participation and involvement,” she said of switching conferences.

Park 2012 graduate RJ Alowonle, a state track champ, said the school has made good moves to improve athletics in recent years, including by hiring football coach Darin Glazier and Justin Ellevold as a full-time strength and conditioning coach.

The conference switch would further those efforts, Alowonle said.

“A lot of kids are just content with where Park has been for years and years,” he said. “I think this is going to help bring a new beginning.”

In discussing the conference switch, Kuemmel has pointed to disparities in the SEC in school size and the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. That is a federal education indicator for poverty.

Park has the third-highest percentage of students qualifying for discounted lunches (24) among SEC schools and is fifth in enrollment. The SEC includes Cretin-Derham Hall, East Ridge, Forest Lake, Hastings, Mounds View, Park, Roseville, Stillwater, White Bear Lake and Woodbury.

Among the nine schools that could join in a new conference, Park is second in enrollment and sixth in the percentage of free and reduced-price lunch recipients. The new conference could include Hastings, Henry Sibley, Hill-Murray, Mahtomedi, North St. Paul, Park, Simley, South St. Paul and Tartan.

Park’s free or reduced-price lunch population is above the SEC average and would be below the average in the new conference.

Park has struggled to compete against Suburban East teams in many sports. There have been big success stories in track, gymnastics and girls basketball in recent years, but other teams, including football and boys basketball, routinely get blown out.

Not everyone supports the current Park proposal.

Leaving the SEC would be good for Park, but it should only occur with a similar move by Woodbury and East Ridge, the other two District 833 high schools, said Adam Palodichuk.

Palodichuk, a Cottage Grove resident, Park graduate and youth coach, said transferring conferences would be good for all three schools. If only Park leaves the SEC while East Ridge and Woodbury remain, it could exacerbate a perception that Park’s population is a “lower class of society,” Palodichuk said.

“This would just further solidify the perception of Cottage Grove that this is the other side of the tracks,” he said.

The larger problem is that the attendance boundaries in District 833 were drawn in a way that the “money parts” of Cottage Grove and Woodbury are in East Ridge’s boundaries.

Palodichuk, who coaches youth hockey in Cottage Grove and has followed the conference issue, said Park has a lower participation because “you have lower-income (families) that feed into that boundary.”

“Even if you do participate, you’re not getting the extras in off-season activities to make you a competitive athlete,” Palodichuk said.

More input sought

Park is soliciting feedback on the proposal through Thursday, Aug. 1. People can submit comments by email at info@sowashco.k12.mn.us. After that deadline, Timmerman will meet with Kuemmel and Park’s three principals to decide whether to recommend a conference switch to Superintendent Keith Jacobus and district administrators. People have spoken up on both sides of the issue, Timmerman said, but more seem to support leaving the SEC.

“The feedback that we’ve received thus far has been more favorable to” joining the new conference, Timmerman said.

Still, Timmerman said he believes Park can be a competitive school in the SEC, but switching to another conference may create more opportunities for students.

“I have never once as a principal said that I don’t think we can compete in the Suburban East Conference, because I don’t believe that’s the case,” he said in an interview. “I think we can.”

By the numbers

Here is the Suburban East Conference schools’ population and percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a federal education guide of poverty.

Cretin-Derham Hall 1,328 (n/a)

East Ridge  1,783 (10)

Forest Lake 2,031 (19)

Hastings    1,507 (16)

Mounds View 1,660 (11)

Park  1,844 (24)

Roseville   2,130 (38)

Stillwater  2,722 (12)

White Bear Lake   2,317 (25)

Woodbury    1,838 (15)

Here are the schools that could join a new conference, along with their population and the percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Hastings    1,507 (16)

Henry Sibley      1,385 (38)

Hill-Murray 705   (n/a)

Mahtomedi   1,181 (8)

North St. Paul    1,955 (44)

Park  1,844 (24)

Simley      1,098 (30)

South St. Paul    887   (36)

Tartan      1,683 (36)

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