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West Ottawa Public Schools is on a mission to ensure all students have equal access and opportunity to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to the school community. And the first step is to remove financial and transportation barriers to student participation in athletic and academic activities to allow every student to join in whatever interests them.

Research shows that students who participate in school activities typically perform better academically and socially. When students develop meaningful, positive relationships through engaging activities, they feel a sense of belonging that ultimately improves the entire school community culture.

“We looked at the participation numbers of our extracurricular activities and realized they could be better and more equitable across the district,” says Director of Student and Family Engagement Pat Collins. “We noticed higher participation from the same feeder elementary schools at the middle and high school levels which made us take a deeper look into what we could do to help students from all West Ottawa schools become more involved.”

The first focus area was a district-wide initiative that eliminated student costs to attend school events. All students may attend football games for free simply by showing their student identification. To include even more of the community, West Ottawa provides free passes to families participating in the English Language Learner program. For many, Friday night football games have become a free family night out.

As expected, attendance at games has increased.

West Ottawa is also hoping to build a free pass program for families using free and reduced lunch programs as another way to increase community support for school events.

“We are also working to add other events, such as plays and musicals,” Pat says. “There are more logistics with inside activities, and we’re determined to make it happen!”

The second phase included the pilot launch of the Panther Pathways program for West Ottawa Title 1 schools that receive supplemental state and local education funding for low-income students and, eventually, the program will include all nine West Ottawa elementary schools. Panther Pathways provides free, after-school sports and academic enrichment programs that focus on engaging students and families.

“By first focusing on fourth and fifth-grade students, we hope to spark a passion that can continue as students enter middle and then high school,” Pat says. “All Panther Pathways activities are offered directly after school, and transportation is provided to intramural games as well as back home.” 

The Panther Pathways leadership team surveyed students to learn what sports and enrichment activities they would like to see. Instructors were also asked about their interests and what they would like to teach students after school. The result is a wide variety of unique offerings that everyone is enjoying.

Each after-school Panther Pathways session offers a sport and activities including STEM challenges, Minecraft club, arts society and actors guild, LEGO architecture, arts and crafts, an E-sports gamers league and Mario Kart, to name a few. Winter after-school sports include girls and boys basketball, and spring sports include flag football and girls soccer. In the fall, Panther Pathways participants can take part in boys soccer or girls volleyball as well. Free tutoring is also offered for students.

And the program is already showing signs of success.

A post-program survey showed 85% of responding students said the program helped them to gain confidence in trying something else in the future, and nearly 100% of respondents reported they enjoyed the experience.

One student shared, “I liked basketball because it was fun making baskets and going to the other schools to play games and make our families proud. Participating helped me by being good at basketball and learning how to be friends with other people and how to be good teammates.”

Another student said they liked the program because they were able to try new things. “I’ve never done anything like build and erupt a volcano or go to a planetarium to see stars and constellations.”

Pat says they are extremely excited by the wonderful response they have received from their school community and the community in general. He notes that many of the community partners who value their vision for equal access and opportunity have provided support either through volunteering to help or financial assistance.

Working with Hope College and high school students to help officiate games expands community involvement.

“High school students can work their way up to be Michigan High School Athletic Association officials if they enjoy it,” Pat says. “And Hope College offered a special sports night for our Panther Pathways students which provided a fun night for them, as well as a glimpse at college life.”

Panther Pathways is making a difference in students' lives by allowing them to see a new world. One recent student participant says the program got them to do something they enjoy. “And it was easy to travel back and forth so my parents didn't have to worry. Now I know there is more to life than just tablets and phones.”

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