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Park High School looks to boost athletics, explores conference change

Roughly three years ago, Park administrators had preliminary internal and external discussions about the possibility of moving Park out of the Suburban East Conference -- its home since the 2001-02 season -- with the main reasons being a shrinking enrollment and shifting demographics.

Since then, not much has changed.

"It's the same thing as three year ago. We're not looking to leave the Suburban East Conference," Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel said. "I say that because I have not, nor has any coach from Park, made any communication or effort with another conference to say we want to join their conference. That just hasn't happened yet."

Kuemmel said he and a group of coaches at Park are continuing to explore options on how to provide more positive experiences for their students and athletes. One thing Kuemmel and the coaches have been looking at is which conference the school best fits into.

"We're looking at what we can do to improve the climate and the culture of Park High athletics," Kuemmel said. "There are many, many things we talked about. The possibility of a new conference was one of many."

Kuemmel reiterated that any conference discussion is exploratory in nature.

"We're trying to get a sense on where the superintendent is on this, where is the school board and where is the community on this subject. That's all we are doing right now," Kuemmel said.

In January of 2009, Kuemmel, along with representatives from fellow District 833 schools East Ridge and Woodbury and fellow conference school Hastings, initiated a meeting with administrators from three Classic Suburban Conference schools -- Tartan, North St. Paul and Mahtomedi -- to gauge what their interest would be in starting a new conference together. However, according to Kuemmel, those talks went nowhere as each Classic Suburban school said they were happy where they were.

Prompting the idea of a possible change has been a decrease in the number of kids playing sports at Park High School across the board, not necessarily just the number of wins and losses.

"One of the big things is that we're trying to get as many kids participating as possible," Kuemmel said. "It's kind of what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Are kids not participating because teams aren't successful or are we not successful because kids aren't participating. We know we need more participants in order to be successful. Participation numbers are huge. We're trying everything we can to promote that participation inside our buildings, but the numbers just aren't there."

Youth numbers trailing

Kuemmel said he and his coaches have looked at participation numbers down into the youth level, and "they are in the same situation" as Park. For example, Kuemmel said the Cottage Grove Athletic Association has many fewer youth basketball teams than in the Woodbury Athletic Association and East Ridge Athletic Association.

"We have a total of nine traveling basketball teams in grades 4 through 8, both boys and girls. Woodbury has 18, East Ridge has 16," Kuemmel said. "But, we're doing everything we can to get kids involved at the lower levels, too."

One identifier used by state agencies to project participation in activities is the percentage of students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch programs at schools.

The free and reduced lunch program numbers are used in the Minnesota State High School League's enrollment calculations when assigning schools to different classes. Based on its formula, a student in the free or reduced lunch program counts for only six-tenths of a student toward that school's enrollment due to the lower amount of recorded participation in activities by those students.

In 2009, Scott Leonard, the co-head coach of the Park girls lacrosse team and a girls soccer and boys basketball coach at Oltman Middle School and Park High School, compiled data from the Minnesota Department of Education and from District 833 in regard to enrollment and free and reduced lunch numbers. In 2009, the projections Leonard received from the school district for the year 2016 -- based on the current boundaries for East Ridge, Woodbury and Park -- showed that Park will have 24 percent of students in the free and reduced lunch program while Woodbury will be at 10 percent and East Ridge will be at seven percent.

According to Minnesota Department of Education fall of 2010, 20.8 percent of Park's 1,806 students are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, compared to 12.7 percent of the 1,807 kids at Woodbury and 9.2 percent of the 1,602 students at East Ridge.

Kuemmel said the demographics between Park and, not only East Ridge and Woodbury but, fellow SEC schools like Mounds View (10.5 percent, 1,744 enrollment), Stillwater (11.7 percent, 2,104 enrollment) are different and may be more similar to schools in the Classic Suburban, for example, like Tartan (31.8 percent, 1,811 enrollment) and North St. Paul (37.7 percent, 1,967 enrollment).

"We're not saying we absolutely need to be in a different conference, but we feel the needs we have at Park High School might be unique to us compared to Woodbury and East Ridge, so we should be treated that way, whatever that may mean, because our needs are different," Kuemmel said.

'Go-ahead' to explore options

Those participation numbers and other concerns have been presented by Park representatives to District 833 Superintendent Mark Porter, who gave those representatives the "go-ahead to explore if there is a better opportunity for the Park High School athletic program as a whole other than its current alignment with the Suburban East."

The final decision to stay in or move out of the Suburban East Conference would be made by the School Board only after it is approved by the superintendent. The only time the high school league becomes involved is if a school doesn't have a conference and if that school is denied entrance to every reasonable conference.

"It's not a School Board issue at this point, because it's really just an exploration," Porter said. "If we get closer to a solution, we would certainly more formally engage the School Board. But, any decision such as this would not be made by a small number of people. There's a large community that is engaged and would be impacted and those people would need to be engaged if we find some alternatives that are worthy."

Porter said as superintendent, he's looking at three things, mainly - participation, levels of play and competitiveness - in that order.

"Participation is always something we're looking at. If there's a drop in participation, that creates a concern," Porter said. "I think one of the real advantages of opening a third high school in the district was the dramatic expansion of opportunities for students to participate in not only athletics, but other activities as well."

Prior to being superintendent, Porter coached nine years and was the activities director for District 833 for six years from 1987 to 1993.

"I don't think there is a hard expectation that the three high schools in the district must remain in the same athletic conference," Porter said, alluding to Irondale and Mounds View - two high schools in the same district, but in different conferences. "Could it be a possibility? Yes."

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson has been the South Washington County Bulletin’s sports editor since 2008. He reports on and oversees coverage of high school and amateur sports in south Washington County and Woodbury. Prior to joining the Bulletin, Johnson worked for other Twin Cities suburban newspapers. He is a University of Minnesota graduate.
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