Of all the public schools in the St. Louis area, Clayton is the only one with a no-cut policy in athletics. Implemented nearly 40 years ago, CHS’s no-cut policy was intended to increase student connectedness to the school. The district’s athletic director Steve Hutson said, “[The policy] was making sure students were connected to the school outside academics because during that time, we didn’t have all these club offerings and all these other ways to stay connected.”
However, knowing that they were certain to make a team, student athletes lacked the drive for “excellence” that Clayton has recently aimed to achieve athletic success in the same way it has been able to on the academic side. Hence, the introduction of CHS’s current participation policy which states that should a student have three unexcused absences from practice, they will be cut from the team. While the current participation policy hasn’t pushed Clayton over the top in pursuit of athletic excellence, it has helped guide our programs in that direction from the original intent of the no-cut policy.
But what will be that final push toward achieving Clayton’s value of excellence in athletics? As Hutson and many other members of the Clayton community have proposed, this would be moving toward a cut policy. Contrary to the initial reservations of many, this policy would truly only impact a handful of sports each season.
Only the most popular sports with limited resources—coaching, equipment and space—will experience cuts. “So if we are going to set roster limits at the freshman level with only one freshmen team, only one JV team and one Varsity team with a roster limit, and the population exceeds those numbers, then we would have to cut,” Hutson said.
Based on an analysis of space and participation numbers in previous seasons, the most affected sports would be volleyball, girls’ tennis, boys’ soccer and both boys’ and girls’ basketball. However, should students be cut from these more popular and crowded sports, they would still have the opportunity to participate in sports like cross country or wrestling, that will remain no-cut to maintain participation in athletics and allow all students to experience that sense of camaraderie that so many long for within their extracurriculars.
With this new policy, Hutson and many others aim to manage resources more effectively, push numbers toward the sports that need them most and achieve both academic and athletic excellence.
Hutson said, “Based on my conversations with almost 100 people, they’re ready to get there. They’re ready to go in that direction and start taking kids that have an ability level and talent, and taking that group and growing them over a four-year time.”
But what will be that final push toward achieving Clayton’s value of excellence in athletics?
Behind the Change
As Clayton looks to the removal of the participation policy, members of the community have had questions and concerns regarding the change. Conversations about the removal began this past summer between Hutson and a group of Clayton parents.
Hutson then met with various groups of parents from Wydown and CHS, as well as the Captain’s Council, a group of student-athletes who have shown leadership in their sports. A major point of discussion was the lack of playing space for teams like girls’ tennis and volleyball.
This fall, when Clayton lost to Westminster in the volleyball district final, it was only by three points. “After Westminster beat us, they walked through the state tournament. Our volleyball team practices on half a court when [Westminster] trains on full-court, it’s not equitable to the teams we play against,” said Hutson. “If we only had three teams and not four, because we have two JV teams, they would have a better training experience. One could argue we might have beat them in that fifth set, and won a state title.”
The tennis team also experiences a lack of court space, with their roster rounding out to fifty-five girls this past season, with only eight courts to train on. Without sufficient court space, girls are offered little opportunity to practice properly.
Large team size also could be a deterrent for coaches seeking to work at Clayton. To some, coaching at a school that offers them a smaller and more dedicated team is a more attractive option than coaching many athletes, some of whom have never played the sport before.
“I think that’s a very practical, real-world pragmatic concern. When you’re dealing with the lower levels, the amount of instruction that may have to go into, we talk often in a classroom about teacher-student ratios, right? In some cases, I think it would make a coach’s job a lot easier, just having fewer athletes,” said Paul Hoelscher, Clayton’s Social Studies Coordinator and former girls’ and boys’ soccer coach.
Another concern about having no limit on team size is the dedication of the athletes. “You have to assess where everybody is, how serious are they about their soccer career? Are they someone who is athletic enough that you think they could pan out as an athlete and contribute? Or are they just kind of doing it to do it with their friends?” said Brendan Taylor, head coach of the boy’s soccer team.
Even though some teams may be overflowing with players, Clayton still experiences a low turn-out of fans to games and minimal school spirit. The only games that receive a large showing of fans are the homecoming football game or rivalry games against Ladue.
This year, the Instagram account @claytonspirit began promoting events, but there was little to no change in student attendance at games. Because Clayton is an academically focused school, many students skip events because of homework. However, the current participation policy may also play a role in the lack of attendance at athletic events as competition feels absent in many sports.
“There’s now this sense of competition that now this kid is performing better than me, or I’m performing better than this person. What does that feel like? It’s going to continue to drive me to succeed,” said Hutson when asked about how a cut policy would increase Clayton’s athletic competitiveness, therefore resulting in stronger teams. Students would be more willing to spend their evening watching a game if our teams were more likely to win, ensuing more school pride.
Many desire athletics to play a role in the lives of Clayton students in the same way academics have, whether it be school spirit or winning games. A cut policy is what many see as the solution.
Athletics provide a non-traditional opportunity for a rich academic experience.
— Cameron Poole
“Athletics provide a non-traditional opportunity for a rich academic experience,” said Dr. Cameron Poole, the district’s Chief Officer of Equity and Inclusion. Consistent with Clayton’s whole child philosophy, athletics can be used to supplement and complete an academic-focused school experience.
The school district’s 2020-2023 strategic plan states about the whole child philosophy, “We will be dedicated to the personal growth of our learners in their social, emotional and physical well-being.” Schools are tasked with turning children into productive adults, and athletics are an integral part of the school experience for many students, helping to tie them to a community.
Sports create an essential sense of belonging in the school community, increasing school spirit and giving diverse groups of people a common goal.
“It is my child’s responsibility to participate in athletics at their high school as a way to contribute and support their school, to promote school pride and increase community support of our sports programs,” said Alison Hoette, CHS parent.
For many students who struggle with the academic portion of the school day, sports can be a lifeline, giving them motivation to persevere in their studies. During his time coaching, prior to coming to Clayton, Poole noticed that sports “create a certain level of accountability, and when we weren’t in season, we would see a dip in grades and behavior.”
At CHS, the athletic department, learning center and coaches collaborate to monitor student-athlete grades and provide support if needed. This is yet another safety net that the school provides to athletes.
Athletics also allow students a plethora of real-life experiences that may be difficult to find in the traditional classroom. Student-athletes meet new people and build relationships outside of their usual social circle. They also learn to work hard and how to handle the emotions and experiences of winning and losing. Sports can be a more realistic reflection of the adult world, as relationships and competition are emphasized, and resources and rewards are limited.
The new policy would also place a greater emphasis on prior experience through club sports, especially in sports such as soccer, baseball, basketball and volleyball. As spots on these teams become more competitive, athletes are essentially “required” to have prior experience with the sport at a club level. These club sports are expensive, often thousands of dollars per season, a burden that not all families are able or willing to shoulder.
Yet, access to sports is a community issue, one that a no-cut policy eases but does not eliminate. “Regardless if students are cut or not, access is still an issue,” said Poole. Students with less access to sports may be less likely to try sports at the high school level, or may end up on lower teams.
Clayton sponsors some seasonal sports teams at the middle school level, and the Clayton Parks and Recreation offers low cost sports for elementary and middle school students seasonally.
Additionally, under the current policy, students with and without disabilities are able to participate together in the sports of their choosing, forming bonds and connections within the community. These opportunities are valuable to students’ overall development.
Participation in athletics gives students a vital opportunity to connect with their peers, teachers, coaches and the school community at large.
Regardless if students are cut or not, access is still an issue
— Cameron Poole
According to the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program, “Many appreciate that sports, broadly defined to include all forms of physical activity, can help students grow academically, socially, physically and mentally in ways that will benefit them throughout their lives.”
Poole supports this statement with data he collected within the district for athletic participation across a variety of different categories. Poole said, “Across every category I’ve looked at, whether it be socioeconomic status, whether it be race or gender or anything else, the more activities a student was in, on average, the higher their GPA and ACT scores were.”
A cut policy might decrease participation in athletics, but not necessarily. By increasing athletic exposure at a younger age, emphasizing communication between various sports and departments within the district, and valuing the real-world preparation the new policy could have, Clayton athletics could still maintain the overall physical health of its students.
Truly, academic exposure to clubs and rigorous courses begins at the elementary level within the Clayton School District. However, the same exposure to sports and value they hold doesn’t occur until the high school level. By instilling the same value in athletics at the elementary and middle school level as academics, Clayton students could be more prepared to achieve excellence in whatever sport they should choose once reaching high school.
It’s important to note that the athletic participation level at CHS is currently at 85% of students, well exceeding Missouri’s recommended rate of 55%. Understanding that these rates could change, Poole intends to address this potential decline in participation.
“[A solution] would be to look at the numbers. We have a good set of data in terms of what things look like before cutting, so to look at those numbers and compare… And I think the big thing is, out of those who are cut, where are they going? What is the next activity they’re doing, whether it’s athletics or not athletics, and how is that impacting their overall experience?” Poole said.
Once students are cut from a sport, coaches need to communicate in order to find the best athletic activity for that student.
“It’s as a collective, being creative, especially depending on the sport. What are some other interest areas of that student? If they can’t do x, then y can be an option. It’s a matter of our coaching units being intentional and knowing the individual skills of each kid. So if I’m cutting you, what’s something that you can still get that sense of belonging and camaraderie,” Poole said.
Ultimately, Hutson said, “We can’t think of this so cookie-cutter. There are situations that are going to come up with kids that we as educators and professionals, we are going to take care of that kid.”
Sarah Taylor spikes the ball in a home volleyball game.
The Right Decision?
Clayton’s no-cut sports policy is unique in the St. Louis region and sometimes raises concerns about the school’s ability to compete against other schools in the area and be successful in larger tournaments like conference and state championships. Alternatively, a no-cut policy proves beneficial in allowing students of all backgrounds, means and abilities to participate in interscholastic competition. The current, more inclusive, policy can help to reflect a community’s values, bringing people together to support a common goal or idea.
“The question would be, does inclusiveness perhaps limit competitiveness?” said Hoelscher.
Currently, most CHS sports have a tryout process, sorting athletes into at least JV and Varsity teams, with some programs having freshman or C teams as well. A cut policy would mostly affect athletes on lower teams, particularly in sports where there are multiple JV or freshman teams, such as girls volleyball, which had two JV teams in the 2021 season.
“Even if it’s not cut, you still have to work to get playing time,” said Anthony Stamillo, CHS senior and captain of the 2021 JV boys soccer team. Grade level is no guarantee of varsity placement in many sports, especially soccer and basketball, as many underclassmen arrive with prior experience, often from club teams. The highest ability athletes receive the most playing time on these varsity teams, and it’s these varsity teams whose results most reflect the ability of Clayton athletics as a whole.
“High school is still young, and everyone is still trying to figure out their passions and interests, and schools that have a cut policy don’t allow kids to have new experiences as much,” said CHS junior Hannah Teagan. Teagan first began playing field hockey as a sophomore at CHS with no prior experience. Despite her initial lack of experience, Teagan has begun exploring options to play in college after two successful seasons and immense development as a goalie.
The no-cut policy also “allows sports to be more fun, rather than cutthroat,” said Teagan. With the current participation policy, students compete with their peers for playing time and coveted varsity spots, but still feel comforted knowing they’re guaranteed the opportunity to practice and be a part of a team.
The 2018 update to the participation policy required student-athletes be removed from a team if they acquired more than three unexcused absences from practice during a season. Despite its intended push toward athletic excellence, this change was not well communicated, and not enforced evenly across all teams.
Communication between coaches, the athletic department, parents, community members and athletes is always critical, but particularly when an athlete is cut. As part of the new policy, the CHS athletic department plans to encourage students cut from teams to participate in other sports with more space that will not experience cuts, such as cross country, wrestling and track. This will require smooth communication between all parties involved.
If students are cut from one sport, “the numbers will move,” said Hutson. The athletic department believes that overall participation numbers for sports will remain similar with the new policy, but will be distributed slightly differently across various activities.
It is important to collect data on sports participation with attention to race, gender and socioeconomic status in order to “have the flexibility to pivot if a larger problem is created as a result,” said Poole.
“The community is ready to go to the next level,” said Hutson. Though Hutson has conducted meetings with various stakeholders and focus groups to discuss the new policy, there has been no data collection from the community at large, therefore he cannot truly predict the response of the Clayton community as a whole.
From the Board
At the monthly Board of Education meeting on March 30, Hutson presented information about the changes to the participation policy for the board members to review. In addition, several student-athletes in attendance were given the opportunity to voice their support for the policy changes. They described how the policy changes would give more prestige to spots in sports teams and help foster greater team chemistry.
The majority of board members supported the policy changes. Board member Stacy Siwak said the new policy would “make games more fun to attend” and that Clayton should “value academics and athletics.” Board members Kim Hurst, Jason Wilson and Amy Rubin also verbalized their support of the proposed changes.
Additionally, CHS principal Dr. Dan Gutchewsky said, “the true meaning of the no-cut sports policy has been lost, some coaches and players believe that no cut means no rules and no expectations.”
However, board members Steve Singer and Joe Miller expressed concerns about lower participation numbers due to the implementation of cuts, as well as the tension between winning and allowing students ample opportunities for physical activity. To describe his opinion on the tension, Miller said, “there must be participation with expectations.”
There must be participation with expectations.
— Joe Miller
Singer mentioned that it might not be a bad thing to value academics over sports in a country that places undue emphasis on athletics.
Both board member Joe Miller and student representative to the Board, Aitana Rosas-Linhard mentioned the possibility of creating intramurals for students cut from popular sports such as volleyball and basketball. This idea received positive but lukewarm reception from Hutson.
Hutson added that the athletic department will “continue to monitor data and that there is always an opportunity for students to participate.”
Many student-athletes shared how much happiness sports bring them, in and out of season. Rubin said, “athletics keep kids engaged and inspired.”
The removal of the cut policy will have both positive and negative implications for Clayton’s culture surrounding athletics.
Athletes are going to become more aware of where they sit on the team and if they will still have a spot the following season. The potential of being cut may hang over people’s heads. And may result in higher show-out to offseason practices as athletes aim to bond with coaches and improve their skills. Teammates may begin pushing each other to be their best as they fend for the last spot on varsity rosters.
This could lead to a decrease in team camaraderie, as teammates begin to compete against one another as well as other teams, potentially leading to competition within teams. Being more competitive doesn’t necessarily mean winning more.
However, more space on fields and courts for varsity level teams in soccer, tennis, basketball and volleyball is a huge opportunity and hopefully more wins will proceed. Clayton volleyball can use full court training to their advantage and have a better chance at dominating the district tournament, preventing a loss like this past fall against Westminster from happening again.
As many athletes and parents want, a greater sense of competition in athletics at Clayton could begin as soon as the removal is enacted. For future breakout athletes like Hannah Teagan, the possibilities may now be limited. By opening the door to a possible increase in athletic success, Clayton may be closing the door on those who haven’t had the opportunity to try a new sport and could have potential.
In addition, participation numbers may decrease, as students without prior experience or of lower socioeconomic status may struggle to access sports and other forms of physical activity.
In the limited capacity that student athletes and parents have been able to voice their opinions regarding the change, support is mostly in favor of it.
“I believe in it. I think it will be good. I don’t think it’s a conversation that’s one and done. I feel like we have to continue to look at what does this look like after year-one of implementation? What was the impact? Just because we do this doesn’t mean we can’t modify it, just because I’ve stated it this way doesn’t mean this can’t be modified,” said Hutson.
In striving to understand how specific students’ athletic participation shifts with the implementation of the new policy, Clayton administrators and coaches will be able to make shifts and changes to the policy in order to maintain physical health among the student population. In addition to monitoring these numbers, an interconnectedness between the coaches of different sports within a given season must be willing to communicate with one another and understand the skill sets of those students trying out.
The removal isn’t final and policies can still be updated if issues arise as athletes are cut. As Clayton’s athletes grow and improve so will the policy.
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