When it comes to a well-rounded education, what happens out on the playing field can be as beneficial to a child as what happens in the classroom. Today, many students and school districts alike are finding that the key to academic success — and to staying in school — is a healthy balance of both academics and sports.

This growing emphasis on K-12 sports as part of a well-balanced education means districts are making major investments in sports facilities.

Aluminum bleachers are giving way to concrete stadiums capable of seating upwards of 10,000 fans. Once stuffy, crowded press boxes are becoming state-of-the-art media and coaching facilities that are wired for speed and sound with Internet ports and superior audio design.

School sports fans benefit from top-notch designs or renovations that give their home fields advantages. Television cameras zip down wires along sidelines. Instant replays flash on million-dollar scoreboards that advertise local businesses in between plays. School basketball fans fill 2,500-seat arenas. Baseball fields have become diamonds from the rough, offering such amenities as covered seating. School swimming pools have become natatoriums offering recreation for students, as well as local community groups who dive in when school is out.Indeed, K-12 sports appear to be entering a Renaissance of sorts. Schools are searching for a more balanced approach to education with broad community support and participation.

“We’ve certainly seen a fundamental shift in education in the last 15 years,” says Tom Oehler of SHW Group, a school architectural design firm that also specializes in planning and designing sports facilities. In just under four years, the firm has handled $280 million in sports projects.

Driving the Trend

This sporting Renaissance is by no means a school district-driven movement. Rather, this trend is fueled by parents and the community and, of course, students who may be sent to school for the curricula, but who stay in school for the extracurricular activities.

“People are finally coming to grips with how important extracurricular activities are to a well-rounded education,” Oehler says.“Oftentimes it’s sports and recreation programs that keep kids in school. Math, science and English are crucial, of course, but they aren’t enough for everyone. Band, football, baseball, swimming, theater, career and technology are just as important in balancing out the educational experience.”

The trend is clearly supported and sustained by parents and taxpayers, who are increasingly more inclined to vote in favor of school bond packages that fund major athletic facility construction and renovation projects.

“This is not a 'Field of Dreams' scenario, where districts build these tremendous stadiums and arenas and hope that the fans will come. The fans are already there, and you can bet they want a good parking place and a seat at the game,” Oehler says.

Share and Share Alike

Some high schools have removed running tracks and widened football fields to accommodate soccer games and fans. Bleachers are moved closer to the fields for more intimate audience settings.“Soccer fields are considerably wider than football fields. We’re widening fields so districts can actually play a regulation soccer match on them. They want to play in a stadium, not an intramural practice field that doesn’t have the amenities for fans, says ” Scott Stites, a project manager at SHW. “Eliminating the track and bringing soccer into the equation gives the crowd the opportunity to be closer to the game, and it becomes a better spectator sport.”

Within the past 10 years, districts have begun to open their facilities to the surrounding communities. School natatoriums may be used for community swim leagues or senior aqua aerobics programs, and community-sponsored programs may take place in high school arenas that are also used for assemblies and basketball games.

“By cross-pollinating a lot of different uses into one facility, you’re broadening the appeal and support for larger and nicer projects,” Stites says. “You wind up with something that transcends its own boundaries. Instead of being used six or seven Friday nights of football season, you’ve got something being used all year long.”

Community involvement is as good for public schools as it is for the accounting books. Districts usually charge fees for community use, and those fees help offset operating costs and help maintain or improve the facilities.

The Turf Wars

Perhaps the most noteworthy trend in redesign is the use of artificial turf. “In the 80s, turf was seen as a prestige kind of thing,” Stites says. “It spoke to a district’s commitment to an athletic department and was more of a status symbol than a practical investment. But by doing some analysis, we discovered that the investment, even at about $1 million, pays for itself in about eight to 10 years.”

District growth is also a consideration. Coppell Independent School District (near DFW Airport) grew rapidly, and the boom meant more games — 4A games were being played at the old 3A stadium.

“Their grass field was a mud pit; they couldn’t get the grass to grow fast enough with practice being held on it four days a week,” says Mike Elmore, project manager and VP at SHW. “With the number of students and programs using the facility, they really needed a nice new facility that could accommodate the foot traffic.”

The district recently broke ground on a multimillion dollar concrete stadium, which will seat 10,000 when it’s done in the fall of 2005.

Size Dictated by Demand

Districts have discovered that their communities are attending high school sporting events at record levels. “It’s not that districts want to spend money on 10,000-seat stadiums, it’s that 10,000 people are showing up looking for parking and a place to sit,” another executive at SHW says. “One district built a 10,000-seat stadium but decided to save a little money by reducing the number of parking spaces. Now they’re having to pay to run shuttles to the stadium from a parking lot at an industrial center across the street.”

One district had planned to build a 12,000-seat stadium and a separate conference center that seats 500 people. A designer at SHW thought the district could combine the two and save quite a bit of money. The new stadium includes a professional development center, housed under the bleachers, and it’s used for teacher training and is open to community groups, such as the local rotary club and chamber of commerce.

Not Just a Phase in Duncanville

Duncanville — City of Champions and home of the largest high school facility in Texas — recently finished Phase Five of construction and renovation at its high school. This roughly $13-million athletic addition features two competition gyms, two physical education gyms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, coaches offices, support facilities and the nationally recognized Meadows Memorial Arena.

“They consider themselves champions in not only academics but obviously also in athletics,” Elmore says. “They have a great academic program, a tremendous fine arts program and state champion marching bands. Basketball falls right in there — the girls’ program is the top ranked in the state, and the boys’ program is also well-known.” The Meadows Arena is named for the legendary girls’ coach who won 906 games and four state titles. The multipurpose facility is used for both basketball games and high school assemblies.

A four-sided, center-mounted scoreboard hangs above the court, much like those found in NBA centers. And the new arena was equipped with a state-of-the-art music and voice-quality sound system that can accommodate a concert as easily as it can accommodate a PA-addressed event.

This state-of-the-art home court is reminiscent of many college venues, and its design landed it on USA Today’s Top-10 list of great places to watch high school basketball.

Off the court, SHW turned to the nearly $2-million redesign of Duncanville’s Panther Baseball Complex, which is now ranked as the nation’s fifth-best high school baseball park facility. The firm designed a new ticket booth, concessions, restroom facilities, storage underneath the bleachers, an elevator to the press box to comply with ADA standards and a roof over the 1,200-seat stadium. The district added a new scoreboard to the field, and the finished product looks more like a small Texas Rangers Stadium than your average high school baseball diamond. The girls’ softball facility is identical to the baseball field, except that it seats about half the people as the baseball stadium.

Making Concessions

Of course, not all improvements have been so grandiose — some are simply practical. Up in the press box, for example, band directors and competition judges need to hear the quality of sound coming from the field. Some press boxes don’t have functioning windows. Judges and band directors don’t want music piped into the press box; they want to open a window and listen at certain points above the field. They want to be able to open a window and judge the character of the sound.

There’s also a trend in indoor practice facilities. SHW has designed 10 in the past six years, and they typically include a 50- to 60-yard practice football field, weight room, coaching offices, training room and dressing facilities. Football teams and marching bands can practice indoors and escape bad weather or intense heat,” Oehler says.

Concession stands are also benefiting from modern upgrades, such as electronic inventory tracking. Texas’ Birdville Fine Arts and Athletics Complex has such a system. “When they sell a nacho, they know they’re down one nacho,” Oehler says. “The food and beverage manager gets a computer-generated report that tells him how much to order next time.”

Everyone’s a Winner

While upgrading and building new facilities is big business, it appears that everyone benefits in some way from the high school sports Renaissance. Construction spending drives new economic activity that benefits the communities; districts are saving money through multi-use facilities; the students are getting a balanced education that strengthens their attachment to school; the parents are more involved; the community has a place to recreate; and local businesses are making money from the fans that attend the games and performances.

Beyond that, districts and communities take great pride in their arenas and stadiums.

“These stadiums rival professional stadiums,” Elmore says. “The only difference is they are built for 10,000 people instead of 40,000 or 80,000. School teams are playing on the same field turf as college kids and pros.”

Schools are always looking towards the future. They’re researching what’s next; what’s best for their dollar; and what’s going to benefit the districts the most. With sports, they appear to have found a balance between the well-rounded education and the cutting edge of technology. And, in the end, perhaps they’re teaching us a few new ways to sharpen the edge, not only for students, but also for the entire community.