Howard County's middle schools have resurrected the intramural athletics eliminated last spring during budget cuts, but the new program has left thousands of students with fewer after-school sports options.
Forced to charge fees for the formerly free activities, the schools have found that student enrollment has decreased by as much as 75 percent -- resulting in the cancellation or curtailment of many intramural sports programs that can't pay for themselves.
The reduction in athletic programs comes at a time when national and local experts in adolescence are urging that more adult-supervised opportunities be offered for middle school students. Studies show that children in that age group are among the most vulnerable to the temptation of drugs and other illicit activities.
"I understand the budget cuts, but I see this as hurting the kids," said Judy Snyder, a physical education teacher who has been directing intramural activities at Clarksville Middle School for 25 years. "This new program of charging fees is better than nothing, but we're not able to offer as many programs.
"I see some of the kids who were here playing sports last year now hanging out with skateboards in the parking lot," she said.
For more than two decades, Howard has paid stipends to middle school teachers to run after-school athletic programs for boys and girls, offering such sports as flag football, basketball, gymnastics, running, table tennis and archery.
Dozens of teachers in all subjects -- not just physical education -- have supervised the activities, which typically reward students for attendance rather than athletic prowess.
More than half the county's middle school students have participated in the programs each year, and school officials had projected that 5,100 of the county's 9,000 middle school pupils would play in at least one intramural sport this year.
But the decision last spring by the county executive and County Council to cut $4.3 million from the education budget forced the school board to sharply reduce some areas of spending -- including middle school intramural activities.
At the time, board members called the elimination of the $77,450 budget for the extracurric ular activities among their most painful cuts, but said they had to preserve funding for classroom activities.
Many parents had feared that the elimination of the money would mean the end of all intramural programs -- leaving their children without adult-supervised after-school activities.
However, the county's Department of Recreation and Parks offered to take up the program, handling registration and paying for staff and materials. There was just one catch: Parents would be required to pay an average of $2 an hour for the program.
"I'm glad we were able to offer essentially the same type of programs that were offered before," said Mike Milani, the sports coordinator for Recreation and Parks. "It's still the same teachers running the activities; the only difference is that parents now have to pay.
"All of the money goes just to recoup our costs. That's it," Mr. Milani said.
Teachers, parents and students are quick to praise Recreation and Parks for offering to save the program, but say they are disappointed that the new charge has substantially decreased participation.
In the past, students were not required to preregister and pay, permitting any student to stay for the activities. Now, only those students who have registered and paid in advance can play.
"I'm glad we are able to offer something, but I think this will preclude a lot of kids who can't afford it," said vocal and music teacher Chrystie Adams, who coordinates intramural activities at Elkridge Landing Middle School. "There's a small amount for scholarships, but it's not going to be enough for a lot of communities."
Schools are finding that registration is way down from previous participation. For example, Hammond Middle School's entire intramural program is in jeopardy because so few students have signed up and paid.
"I used to have 80 to 110 kids playing flag football every week. Now I can't get 10," said Hammond Middle physical education teacher Rick Oursler.
Nearly all schools have had to reduce the number of days they offer the programs, disappointing some parents and students.
"I tried to stay for every day I could last year," said Clarksville Middle seventh-grader Craig Suther, 12. Craig was the top sixth-grade boy in intramural attendance last year, but the reduction in Clarksville intramurals to one day a week means, he said, "I don't have anywhere to go after school" for something to do.
L "I'll just go to a friend's house or something," Craig said.
Studies show that middle school is the time when many students fall into the trap of illicit activities -- particularly if they lack strong relationships with adults.
A report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development released last week urged schools and communities to create more adult-supervised programs for adolescents, citing a marked rise during those early teen-age years in pregnancy and drug abuse.
And in Howard County, the most recent survey of student drug and alcohol abuse found that middle school is the time when the largest number of children begin abusing alcohol.
"We need to be doing more, not less," said Clarksville parent Kathy Bonebreak.
"With so many parents working and leaving their kids home alone, there need to be other activities for after school," she said.
School board members agree, but say there's little they can do.
"As the community says it doesn't want its taxes increased, we will be providing fewer students fewer services over time," said board member Karen Campbell. "Parents will pay the consequences, either through their pocketbooks or their time or increased worrying about what their children are doing when they're not being supervised after school."