California Education: Failing Kids? (2)

Part 2 – Sports

Back in August of last year I wrote the first part of my analysis of public education in California, and why I felt it was failing the state’s children. As I said then, that was just the first part of the analysis, looking at the state of school lunches.

This is part two of the series, looking at sports options for elementary school age groups. Middle school in the US is hard to compare with the UK since the latter combines the US middle and high into secondary schools. Our kids are in a combined elementary and middle (so called K-8) school, and while the middle school does offer some sports, they share the facilities I detail below (the campus the school is on was originally a middle school, so it is equipped in line with the other middle schools on the island).

Furthermore, this is looking at the city of Alameda, in the San Francisco bay area. It is certainly possible that some other cities have better facilities and/or options.

School Facilities

Alameda, California

Before we get to the specifics of what is offered at each level, one of the most obvious things I noticed here in Alameda was that the schools have very limited sports facilities. Our kids’ school here has an indoor gym as part of a multi-purpose space (it also serves as a space for the kids to eat lunch, as a stage for the middle school music program and as a large room to hold assemblies and other events). As a gym, it has basketball hoops (one large court with hoops that drop from the ceiling, and two smaller courts across the width of the room). I believe there are also places to secure nets to the ground for volleyball.

Outside, there are more basketball hoops on the middle school side of the “blacktop,” and some lines painted (this last summer) for some other games, and for the state physical education tests that the schools need to run (more on that later).

Most significantly though there is no grass area, whether real or otherwise, as part of the space for any of the elementary or middle schools in the city. There is typically a grass area, often with a baseball diamond or similar, adjacent to each school, but that is owned and operated by the city’s recreation and parks department. The schools, in what is a ridiculous layer of additional bureaucracy, are not operated by the city, but rather by a separate organization (the “Alameda Unified School District”). As somebody from the city council was quick to point out with respect to my previous comments about school food, the city can do nothing about the schools. I’m sure they were also quick to arrange keeping these fields under city control when the district was first set up…

Here are satellite photos of two elementary schools in our area, one the charter my kids attend, and the other a newer school in the neighborhood:

Neither has a grass sports field, but both are adjacent to city owned facilities (rented out to private organizations for sports practices and games).

East Sussex, UK

As with my school lunch comparisons, I am going to use the county where I grew up in England for comparison. I picked a primary school, Ashdown Primary, from the list of schools in East Sussex as it is in a town near where I grew up. The town has about a quarter of the population of Alameda (20K vs 76K), so comments about needing larger schools to provide better options should not apply.

Ashdown Primary offers a lot of sports options (as we will see when we compare them), but in terms of facilities they only list this in their prospectus (PDF):

There is also an indoor swimming pool as well as a smart outdoor shaded area, and a huge field.

No elementary school, or middle school for that matter, in Alameda has a swimming pool. Two of the high schools have outdoor pools (both are currently broken from what I understand). Looking at the site of the Junior school (they have two campuses, the other for “infant” age group) in a satellite view, there is clearly something marked on their blacktop surfaced area, and the large field adjacent. Also looks like they have tennis courts at the bottom of the photo.


Alameda, California

Here is where the failing of the California system becomes painfully obvious, although my kids’ school (a charter, so not bound by the school district’s policies) does try to include more sport-like activities. The lack of spaces to play real sports means they can’t really do traditional team sports.

For elementary level, they do organize basketball, dodge ball, soccer and a version of hockey and other activities they can play on the blacktop. Middle school has organized sports, although it is run by an outside organization and not funded by the school district at all. That plays volleyball in the winter, basketball in the spring and track & field in the summer, but only for those accepted onto a school team.

Both levels spend far more time training for the state physical education test, making the PE sessions into something more akin to a workout in a gym, with exercises like push ups, timed pacer runs and pull ups. Rather than a focus on team sports, or even individual sports like tennis and badminton, the schools focus on getting the best results in these state tests.

East Sussex, UK

From the school website’s PE page, the Ashdown Primary school offers:

We aim to give children some experience across various sports and activities, both team and individual, to include;

– Games
– Dance
– Outdoor & Adventurous Activities
– Swimming
– Athletics
– Striking and Fielding

That doesn’t really make clear the full scope of what they are offering. Here are two extracts of tables on the page showing what elementary kids can expect:

Gymnastics, football (soccer), tag rugby (similar to flag football in the US), (field) hockey, badminton, tennis, volleyball, rounders, cricket, dance, athletics (track & field). My son’s middle school doesn’t get close to that list..

Additionally, the school takes part in inter-school football (soccer), trampolining, cross country running and likely more (the website showed photos from the first term’s activities).

The objectives are not simply to get good results in a standardized test, but, as described on the website:

  • To take part in Physical education lessons
  • Develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities.
  • Being physically active for sustained periods of time.
  • Engage in competitive sports and activities.
  • To lead healthy, active lives.
  • Be confident in giving things ago


It has amazed me ever since I arrived here that only the high schools in Alameda have swimming pools. Even more surprising for an island community where teaching kids to swim at a young age could literally save lives.

Once our kids started school, I was shocked to learn how little they had in the way of sports, and even more that the inter-school sports is so limited. Alameda has a climate that is ideal for outdoor activities, and yet the schools do not offer elementary kids any of the national sports (baseball, football etc). Instead, that is left up to external organizations to provide, at additional cost to the parents meaning only those who can afford it can play.

The state PE curriculum seems to just specify the number of minutes of PE per 10 day period. From the AUSD website:

Students in grades 1-6 must be provided at least 200 minutes of PE every 10 consecutive instructional days.

Nothing there about team sports, or any structured sports at all. There is a section stating all kids have to participate in the state testing, but nothing detailing what the 200 minutes of PE every 10 days will include.

While some of these organizations do offer ways for kids to play for free (subsidized by other parents who are paying), that is up to the organization, and even then with practices after school and at weekends, it is not always possible for the children to participate. Having sports at school means they will all get a chance to participate.

I also think it is a crime to have a sports field adjacent to every school, but to have that owned and managed by a different entity so they cannot easily make use of it. For the city, however, having them outside of the schools means they can rent them out to sports organizations for their practices and games and make some additional money from them.

We are just entering the spring season for extra-curricular sports, so we are getting the kids signed up, getting all the insurance and liability forms signed and working out the schedules so my daughter can play softball with other girls here on the island. Later in the year, we will be repeating the process for her to join the “competitive” team that travels to other cities to play. My son decided not to sign up for baseball this spring, and instead has joined a frisbee league, but, since it is a separate organization and the Alameda team did its sign-ups back in September, he has to play for a “free agent” team with players from different cities, and they don’t get a time to practice, putting them at a disadvantage to the teams that do practice.

One of his friends has been playing soccer for several years, but because the “competitive” teams in Alameda are not as good, he has been playing for teams in other cities, and has an hour plus drive twice a week after school for practices and then plays games all over the area, and sometimes outside of it. Another of his friends plays on the “travel team” for baseball, and they frequently play games in cities 2+ hours drive away from Alameda, with parents doing all the driving around.

Schools in the UK participate in inter-school sports and travel too, but the team typically goes on the school bus (or minibus), driven by the coach or other staff.

By making it so hard for children to participate in sports at elementary, and even middle school level, I believe California is again failing to educate its children properly.

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