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In the Pool, On the Stage & at the Concert

Access to Academics Beyond Classroom Walls

Mara Sapon-Shevin and Paula Kluth


In 2000, Saskatoon’s Mount Royal Collegiate, a secondary school in Ontario, Canada, all but abandoned after-school activities.  Due to increased demands on teacher time and lack of extra funding for coaches and activities supervisors, the school was forced to temporarily halt all extra-curricular activity.  Students and their families were outraged (Schofield, 2000). Research suggests that the Saskatoon community has good reason to be concerned. Studies consistently show that students who participate in extra-curricular sports and clubs have better attendance rates (Juarez, 1996).  Students involved in school sports are also less likely to smoke, use drugs, and become teen parents (Alberta Schools Athletic Association, 1997). 

Students who lose access to extra-curricular clubs, games, and activities may miss important social opportunities.  Students who play, practice, and work together develop important social skills. Students participating in clubs or teams make new friends, learn recreation skills, and often connect with students outside their typical social circles.   Group membership may also help children and adolescents form their identities and become more self-aware. The cheerleading team may go away to a two-week summer clinic to practice skills, work for hours after school to develop new routines, and ride together on bus trips to football games, basketball tournaments, and wrestling matches.  These activities leave plenty of time for talking, sharing, connecting, and developing friendships. Many students in these situations find opportunities to give and get support and build community with classmates.

Students engaged in extra-curricular activities may be more successful and academically advantaged than those who do not participate in clubs, teams, or after-school activities.  Many extra-curricular activities are based on academic work, in fact. Students participating in Spanish club, Math Olympics, National Honor Society, and poetry club clearly have opportunities to practice and develop academic skills.  Few educators would argue that students participating in a debate team learn skills of expression and communication. They may also learn about different genres of writing, acquire new vocabulary and actively learn about issues of discourse and audience.  Likewise, students on the staff of the school newspaper are practicing expository writing, learning about perspective and style, and exploring the politics of publishing.

Other school-based extra-curricular options, such as participation in sports, seem less educationally-focused but appear to be just as critical to the development of students’ academic growth.  In addition to learning about their own bodies, learners engaged in athletics often grow intellectually through the acquisition of new skills and the mastery of rules and patterns; students engaged in dance are learning about movement and art; and students learning to play football, must master new symbol systems and interpret visual information. 

Why Do Students Get Excluded?

Students of all ages learn facts and skills and gain knowledge through dozens of after-school and co-curricular activities including academic societies, athletic activities, music groups, language clubs, theatrical productions, and political organizations.  Unfortunately, some students do not have access to these activities. For some, access to these activities is restricted due to rules, structures, perceptions, and assumptions that are in some way limiting or restrictive. That is, some students are explicitly or implicitly rejected when they express interest in extra-curricular activities.  

As we move towards building schools and school communities that are more responsive to a wider range of learners, the broader curriculum- athletics, music, intellectual competitions, social groups, drama- of the school should be examined.  Students with disabilities, students marginalized because of social class, students with limited financial resources, and other excluded students must be included in extracurricular activities for many reasons, particularly because such participation is related to academic success. 

While thousands of students across the country are accessing school and community clubs, organizations, teams, lessons, activities, and groups, countless others are finding barriers to their participation in extra-curricular opportunities.  What keeps students from learning and participating in life outside of school? Students are excluded from participation in extra-curricular activities for a variety of reasons. Although each reason will not apply to every student, an examination of some of the barriers to full participation can be illuminative of the issue and possible solutions.

“She just wouldn’t get anything out of this activity”


The assumptions educators make about who can benefit from participation in a particular activity are often based on inadequate information, stereotypes and misperceptions about the nature of participation. It might be assumed, for example, that a student who doesn’t speak couldn’t participate in a forensic competition or that a student who uses a wheelchair couldn’t play soccer.  Similarly, assumptions about who students are and the various identities they hold may make educators reluctant to involve a wide range of students. 

In one school, for example, participation in the foreign language program is limited to students whose reading proficiency is “at grade level.” Thus, the wide range of extra-curricular activities available to students who are taking French, Spanish or Latin is also closed to many students. The field trip to Montreal, an activity of the French club, is not open to any student not taking French; participation in the Olympics (with chariot races) is not accessible to anyone not taking Latin.  THIS SHOULD GO INTO 2?


Existing patterns of segregation according to race or class often become reinforced and reified through extra-curricular activities. In many high schools, certain sports are considered “white” and others “black.” There are often no (or few) whites on the basketball team and few students of color on the swimming team. 

“We can’t just let anyone into the band — we have high standards here”

In many schools, extra-curricular activities are part of a competitive ideology that separates and sorts students. Participation in extra-curricular activities is seen as the “right” or privilege of high achieving students, as a ticket to a better college, and as a way of preparing students for participation in competitive, societal forms of a particular activity. Thus, being on the football team is seen as a way of training a few excellent athletes who may go on to play professional football; being in the school play or chorus is a way of providing high level theatrical and musical experiences for students who excel in that area who then might pursue these activities in institutions of higher learning or as community members. 

“He’s having too much trouble in his regular classes —- there’s no time for extras”

For some, the perception is that participation in extra-curricular activities is reserved for those students who are making satisfactory progress in their academic classes. In some cases, this becomes enacted as eligibility requirements – you can’t be on the rugby team unless you are doing well in your academic work.  While intended to keep students focused on their academic progress and accountable for learning, the result of such requirements may be to exclude from participation those students for whom academics are a struggle. 

Even when not enacted as a policy, the perception that extra-curricular activites are “frills” or (as their name implies) “extra” may keep students from participating.  A mother of a young girl who was experiencing significant delays in learning how to read was advised that she should pull her daughter out of the gymnastics program in which she was participating (and excelling!).  The teachers advised that the all the girl’s “free” time should be devoted to reading tutorials and extra classes. The mother, wisely, argued that it was important for her daughter to remain active in an activity in which she experienced considerable success. Not surprisingly, when the girl’s self-esteem and confidence was better developed, the reading instruction she was receiving helped her to become a more fluent reader. 

Since students often enjoy participation in extra-curricular activities, withholding such participation is seen as a form of behavior management that is intended to keep students performing well in other areas. Because educators may not perceive the embedded academic and intellectual skills within extra-curricular activities, they may limit those activities in place of the “real” work of schooling.

“But what would a student like Marissa do in the school play/color guard/volleyball club?”

An inability to conceptualize and implement multi-level instruction which allows for a wide range of participation options often impedes the full involvement of a wide variety of students. If one conceives as the orchestra as being only for students who can read music and play an instrument, then it becomes difficult to think about the myriad ways in which a non-musician could participate in that activity. If being on the basketball team is only for those whose skills are “competitive” in dribbling and shooting, then it becomes difficult to imagine the participation of a child who is blind or physically challenged. 

 “Charlie can’t play hockey because parents are required to drive players to the early-morning Saturday games and his mother works all weekend!”

For many students, technical and logistical impediments may stand in the way of their participation in a wide range of school activities.

  • The ski club costs money, and you have to have the right winter clothes and equipment.
  • Participation in the debate team involves trips out of town for which parents must be involved in transportation. 
  • The uniforms for lacrosse players are expensive and must be purchased by the students and their families.
  • Students are expected to practice for the crew team every day after school and on Saturday afternoons, therefore, the coach encourages them not to get a part-time job.  (Some high school students have after-school jobs or care for younger sibling while their parent(s) work. )- should we change this one?

Some families do not have money that can be spent on uniforms and special equipment. Even if the parents have a car, they may not have extra money for fuel, or have jobs and family responsibilities that would preclude their being gone for a weekend. Making student participation contingent upon having parents who can afford to be fiscally and emotionally supportive precludes the participation of a wide range of students. 

“We offer lots of activities — if kids don’t sign up for them, it’s not our fault.”

While a range of extra-curricular options may be offered at a school, all students may not avail themselves of those opportunities. Some students do not see themselves as represented in the offerings. Perhaps they perceive (and are correct) that participation in the orchestra requires the “right clothes” or membership in particular socio-economic or ethnic groups.  The school offerings may not reflect their own communities or represent valued activities within their own family or culture.

Some students literally don’t know what is available or do not know how to access what is offered. If you can’t read the sign that says “Field Hockey Try Outs” or don’t know what it means to “try out” for something, is unlikely you will appear at the gym at 3:00. In some schools, participation in specific extra-curricular activities is closely related to specific classes, i.e. only students in the vocal music class are eligible for or aware about the school musical or only students in business education classes know about the activities of the Future Business Leaders Organization.  Students may be aware of the cliquishness of particular activities and feel functionally excluded; if they do go once, they may not feel welcomed or included. Some students require concrete support and encouragement for participation; they may need someone to review their options with them, help them to select something, and then need a friend or other support person to help them make their “entrée” into the new group or community. 

Visions of Inclusive Extra-Curricular Activities

In responding to the above barriers, we articulate here our vision of what inclusive extracurricular activities could be like:

  • It would be recognized and accepted that there are many valuable benefits to participation in extra-curricular activities, and that all students can learn something from participating. 

Students who are not fluent readers can enjoy attendance at the local Shakespeare production as well as those who have studied the play and its historical context.  Learning to be a member of the audience, delighting in the music and artistry of theater, and recognizing that printed text can be experienced as a story — these are all potential learning experiences from attending a play. 

Students who cannot physically engage in the game of basketball can still serve as a team manager, statistician, game photographer, motivational coach, or free-throw expert.  Any student participating as part of such a team will undoubtedly learn about scoring, rules, teamwork and how groups work together to achieve a common goal. Likewise, one need not be able to follow every choreographed step to benefit from the aerobics club, nor does one need to excel in physics, chemistry, or biology to appreciate the creativity, problem-solving, and interaction that takes place at the science fair. 

  • The goal of extra-curricular activities would be to involve as many students as possible, rather than to serve as a vehicle for sorting and selection. Competition does not need to be the focus of high school extra-curricular activities. 

Schools are educational institutions.  They exist to support the growth, development, and learning of all students.  Why then are so many extra-curricular groups focused on competition and winning?  Most schools make “cuts” when forming their sports teams, drama productions, music groups, and, even their academic groups.  How does this type of policy further the educational experience of any student? It does not and cannot- especially since these types of judgements about students are incredibly subjective and, sometimes, even biased by teachers’ impressions of students families, academic abilities, and behavior. 

Take for example a typical day of try-outs or auditions in a high school.  The coach, teacher, or advisor observes the skills and abilities of a student as he or she performs in some way for the adult.  When the student is done performing, the adult decides whether or not the student will be permitted to participate in the organization or group.   Thus, the adult also decides – fairly arbitrarily, in most cases – who will have an opportunity to further develop skills and who will be dismissed from learning opportunity.  How is it that we permit this “assessment without instruction” approach in our schools? And how does this pervasive model fit within diverse, inclusive schools? If schools are about teaching and learning, then we must provide students with opportunities to experience both.   

Instead of counting the number of trophies in the glass cases, touting the number of “all-state” or “all-conference” musicians the school has cultivated, and advertising the number of years the school has been invited to the mathematics decathlon, educators might congratulate themselves on how many students are joining and participating in school-sponsored activities.  They might boast about the number of students who joined a club for the first time or collect data on how many hours the average student spends learning at school beyond school hours.   

  • Participation in extra-curricular activities would be viewed as a student right, and not as a privilege to be earned or made contingent on other areas of performance. 

How many adults would continue to go to work each day if they were unsuccessful at everything they were asked to do?  One way to scare students away from school (and, therefore, from academic learning) is to take away activities they love and eliminate work they enjoy.  When schools treat extra-curricular activities as a privilege and take them away from the students who struggle the most, they are wasting a powerful educational tool.  Since participation in extra-curricular activities may actually increase the attendance of struggling students (CITES) and boost their performance in the classroom, we need to do everything possible to keep students engaged in them.

In fact, student extra-curricular activity might be used as a way to support struggling students in their academics.  A teacher we know once taught a frustrated math student about arc and angles during games of 1-on-1 basketball. The student slowly started to make the connection from basketball to geometry during these sessions.  This kind of creativity can be a catalyst for designing more appropriate classroom supports for learners. That is, if we can examine contexts in which students are successful (when playing music, during athletic contests, through speech-writing), perhaps we can bring these experiences into weekly lessons while continuing to enhance skills and knowledge through extra-curricular experiences. 

  • Extra-curricular activities would be conceptualized and implemented in ways that allow students to participate in many ways and to be active members despite wide discrepancies in skills or abilities. 

In schools that value the participation and success of all students, activities will be designed and cultivated that are available to all.  The yearbook staff will be open to any student wanting to participate. Students might be asked to sell advertising, plan marketing strategies, take and develop photographs, design graphics for the cover or inside pages, engage in financial planning, or write copy.  Every one of these roles is academic, interesting, meaningful, and necessary. Since some roles require more skill or specialized knowledge than others, adult advisors can offer any student some role that will challenge and engage her. A student who really wants to learn more about dark room technology can do so, while another student can make an equally important contribution by helping to select photos for various sections of the book.   

When one of us (Mara) was in high school, the Audio Visual Club provided an opportunity for students of very different groups to meet and get to know one another. While some activities seemed clearly segregated by race, class or academic skill, the AV Club attracted a wide range of student types and important friendships developed there. In addition, students who were in the AV club learned to operate and repair audiovisual equipment, important skills for the future. 

  • Participation in extra-curricular activities should be separated from individual or family resources so that all students can participate fully in all activities. 

Creativity is key for schools looking to tackle extra-curricular logistical barriers.  Scheduling must be examined- how can transportation be provided for all students? The school might engineer transportation partnerships between families and students or provide some students with passes for the city bus.  Teachers and administrators might consider changing the location of some school-sanctioned activities. Is the school the most convenient place for every group to meet? Some clubs might well meet in community centers or area libraries.  When is the best time for the group to meet? Perhaps some groups could assemble before school so that students with after-school jobs could still participate. Schools might even pursue the possibilities of holding extra-curricular activities during the school day.  Perhaps some groups can meet during lunch period or free study time. This may be an attractive option for schools with challenging transportation problems (those who serve students from rural areas or students who are bussed to a non-neighborhood school, for example).  Educational leaders should examine all logistical barriers related to student participation in extra-curricular activities. Several specific questions should be considered:

  • Do students need uniforms?  Can teams, groups, or clubs dress in like colors or similar outfits as an alternative?
  • How far are students traveling to compete or participate in activities?  How could schools and school districts design competitions or gatherings so that travel across town or out of town is limited and students and their families are traveling primarily within their own communities?  
  • Can costs be minimized for activities?  Can grants or school-wide fund-raising cover activity costs for all students?  Can community fund-raising be used to alleviate financial demands on individual students and their families?   
  • Expand extra-curricular options to include a wide range of interests and needs and to respond to the unique needs of individual students

If a student cannot find an extra-curricular home in his or her school, he or she is left to find social opportunities elsewhere.  Some students may be successful in finding after-school activities that are interesting and safe. Other students may be unsuccessful in finding appropriate alternatives.  Some of the students at Webb Middle School in Austin, Texas, for example, were in gangs. The principal decided to create more extra-curricular options in her school in the hopes of drawing these students into the school and getting them interested in something meaningful (Juarez, 1996).  Since many gang members struggle with issues of identity (Vigil, 1988), Juarez formed the groups, in part, to provide students with opportunities to develop self-awareness through memberships that were school-sanctioned. The school began to offer a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities.  Students who might have previously struggled to find an extra-curricular match could now choose from over 50 clubs and activities. Titles of these groups included walking, Tejano dance, ultimate frisbee, Pen Pal, Create Your Own Futures, ham radio, and Macintosh (Juarez, 1996). School leaders were thrilled not only with the numbers of students who ended up participating, but also with the kinds of learning and excitement that resulted from the new extra-curricular offerings.  

Inclusive Extra-Curriculars: Some Examples


What academics are embedded in participation in sport and athletic activities? Through physical activities, students acquire information about their bodies, positionality and directionality. Through participation in sports in which there are rules, they learn about categorization and the ways in which examples either fit or don’t fit the “rule.” Through participation in football, students can learn about patterns and memorization. Any kind of score keeping involves learning about numbers, numerical patterns, and so on. 

Many physical activities can be structured in ways that allow for a wide range of participation options. The cheerleading squad performs many figures and routines, and not all students are engaged in the same way. In building a pyramid, certain students form the base, others balance on top. This is a model of inclusion — all are necessary, but not all do the same thing.  Weight lifting, track and field events, and other such activities also can be structured so that there are multiple levels of difficulty. It is possible to get a full workout in step aerobics by simply stepping on and off the step. The ability to do “J” steps and leaps is not necessary to full participation.

Most students in American schools will not become professional athletes.  Most of them will, however, want to play in a corporate softball tournament, join an occasional tennis game with friends, or take a jog every once in a while.  We should, therefore, be developing the skills, abilities, and athletic capacities of all students. Schools and teachers should be promoting life-long health and fitness- not just in physical education classes, but in our extra-curricular activities, as well.  The marker of success for the coach of the cross-country team should not be how many races his runners have won, but how many of his former team members continue to run, enjoy the sport, and increase their skills as adults. While it is certainly important to facilitate the development of all students and to encourage them to fulfil their potential, this should not occur at the expense of other students with less athletic prowess.  Skilled coaches are able to see the skill and ability in all students and pride themselves on bringing out the best in all.

Consider a new model for developing a high school pompon squad.  Instead of asking students to audition for a spot on the squad, all of the young women (and men) interested are welcome to join.  Since the squad only owns twenty uniforms, the students share uniforms and take turns performing at athletic events. Or the students work with a Family and Consumer Education Class to design and create costumes for all.  Or students throw together unique make-shift outfits for the different dance routines they perform (jeans and t-shirts for a 1950s rock and roll song).

Issues of gender also must be considered if we are to push traditional boundaries related to extra-curricular activities.  At Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, Luisana Cruz, a player on her school’s varsity football team is challenging what it means to be a fullback (Lopez, 1999).  Luisana and three other young women are all on the Lincoln team and while none of them are starters, they have all seen action on the field.  

Schools wanting to include all students in extra-curricular options might evaulate the types of options that are offered.  Are all of the activities competitive? Skill intense? Students who struggle with weight; those with physical disabilities; and those who are not competitively oriented might appreciate offerings that are more individualistic and self-paced in nature such as power walking, water aerobics, yoga, or karate.


Music can be organized and taught so that many people at different skill levels can participate. If there are multiple parts, stronger singers can be given the more complex parts. Many songs have repetitive choruses that many people can learn. Instrumental music usually has multiple parts, and not everyone plays the same instrument or the same part. In one drumming ensemble, some drummers played the steady bass beat while others performed the fast, complex drum patterns. Together the sound was outstanding — all the parts are needed, and the sound is enriched by the active participation of many drummers.

For the last several years, one of us (Mara) has lead workshops on Making Music Accessible to All. This workshop has included songs without words, songs with sign language, songs with different parts, rounds (in which some people need only learn a tiny segment of a longer piece) and songs in which are done as call and response. Each type of music has particular characteristics which allow for full (not partial) participation by all members. It is important to state that full participation does not mean that every person is doing the same thing at the same time. Full participation means that everyone has an active role (not just holding up the applause sign at the end!). 

We have worked with a music educator who had an incredibly diverse choir group.  It was clear from listening to the group that this educator did not require students to qualify for the group- instead she invited all students and voices into her group.  She provided instruction to all of the students participating in her group and pushed each of them to work harder and do more. When asked why she organized her groups in this way, the teacher explained that she didn’t expect her choir to be the best in the county or state- although she certainly provided them with a challenging curriculum that moved them all toward excellence.  She did expect, however, to make each student a better performer, singer and artist.

The Syracuse Community Choir provides a model of an inclusive musical activity. The choir is open to all community members without auditions. The only requirement is a desire to participate. The choir has members of all racial groups, many religions, many ages and includes a significant number of people with significant disabilities, including blindness, mental retardation and emotional and behavioral challenges. 

The choir performs music that is accessible to all. The music is often four-parts, and section leaders in each group help people who require it. The section leader or another strong singer will often sit next to a person who needs help staying on pitch. Other section members sit next to and support people who require other kinds of help. Allison, for example, might sit next to Janine and help her turn the pages of her large print music. Peter may sit next to Ted and help him to stay seated and calm if he gets agitated or nervous at some point. 

What kinds of resources are needed to include diverse learners? Some of the needed resources are physical : brailled music, large print music, music stands for those who can’t hold music, etc.  Most of the resources are human; there must be sufficient numbers of able-bodied singers to support those requiring physical assistance and enough emotional support for those who require a gentle touch or a soft word in order to remain engaged and participating. Each year, the choir holds workshops to help all choir members understand differences and disabilities and to help choir members develop the skills necessary to support their fellow choir members.  Attention must also be given to logistical support: does everyone have transportation to the choir rehearsals and concert? Can all parents afford to attend (if there’s a charge)? Are costly uniforms or costumes required for participation that disenfranchise certain kids? Is the concert scheduled with sensitivity to the family and religious requirements of all families (i.e. not having a Friday night concert that excludes Jewish students)?

Making music inclusive also means being thoughtful about what music is selected and performed.  Making sure that not all music is Christian-dominated increases the possibilities of many students participation, and also helps all students learn about the wide diversity of their classmates and the world. Music can be used as a tool to teach about diversity and promote inclusion; learning music from different cultures, and representing various ethnic and racial groups can be an educational experience for both the performers and the audience.  Learning to sing the National Anthem from South Africa can provide powerful learning experiences and discussions about apartheid, racial justice and political change. Having students learn and perform music about the oppression of gays and lesbians (for example, Fred Small’s song, Scott and Jamie) can provide an opening for exploring issues of sexual harrassment and the importance of building and becoming allies. 


There are many academic skills embedded in all aspects of theater. Students have opportunities to improve their reading, to learn about modes of expression, inflection, body language and non-verbal cues. Participating in a play involves coordinating your actions with others and learning about timing and coordination. The selection of the play itself can involve students in learning about different literary genres and discourse styles.

The school play provides a wonderful example of an extra-curricular activity in which everyone can be involved. To put on a successful play, the following tasks are necessary. It is impossible to read this list without identifying students for whom this task would be appropriate and provide learning experiences:

Finding or writing the script.

Casting the show.

Painting scenery.

Designing and sewing costumes.

Finding props for the play.

Serving as a prompter (off stage with a script, prompting those who forget their lines).

Preparing publicity for the show, including designing and coloring posters, distributing flyers, calling local media and placing ads, posting signs, etc.

Selling tickets, both before the show and during the show.

Planning, preparing and selling refreshments.

Ushering the show, passing out programs.

When Bob Blue, a teacher and children’s musician from Western Massachusetts, was casting school plays, he made sure that every child who wanted to participate was included. When Bob put on “Alice in Wonderland”, 10 little girls all wanted to be Alice. Rather than choosing one (and devastating 9 others), Bob had a different solution. There was a different Alice in each scene, and students shared the spotlight. The audience had no trouble telling who was Alice — she was always the one wearing the white dress with the blue apron.  

Another elementary music and drama teacher included all students in the school play by allowing students to write their own parts. The play started out with a basic script, which students changed as they rehearsed. Students who felt more comfortable as rehearsals went on were allowed to add lines for themselves and embellish their parts. A deadline of one week before the play was put on changes so that the “final” version was secure, but before that point, the students were all active participants in writing their own play. This increased the participation of students; those who were reluctant at the beginning to say anything often felt more willing to participate as rehearsals continued. 

Teachers can also increase the range of students who are involved in theater activities by being thoughtful in their selection of the dramatic activity being produced. Is the selection sensitive to the population of the school? Do students feel that the play “speaks to them” or do they feel excluded by the format and topic? One teacher we know allowed students to perform short plays that they selected, covering a wide range of genres. All students were able to find something that appealed to them and made them comfortable with their participation. 


Lack of access to extra-curricular activities during school also limits future academic options. Many colleges require participation in extra-curricular activities for admission, and many scholarships are based on students’ level of participation during high school. In the same way that not taking Calculus severely limits a student’s college options, not being able or encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities throughout one’s school years can limit future opportunities. 

With commitment and imagination, extra-curricular activities can be conceptualized, supported and implemented in ways that allow all students active participation.  This becomes critical not only because of the benefits of participation to students during their school years but beyond as well. It is through participation in school extra-curricular activities that many people learn who they are and what they enjoy, activities and identities which they build on after they leave school. The student who participates in music activities in school is more likely to join the community choir; students who enjoyed physical activities in high school are more likely to be engaged in such activities as adults. Being a full member of one’s school community is an important precursor to being a full member of the greater community and society.

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