Reimagining School Sports: Small Rural Public High Schools

December 21, 2021  • Sports & Society Program

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Key Points

  • 42% of rural students play on high school sports teams, more than suburban (41%) and urban (33%) students
  • 78% of schools nationally with low athletic trainer availability exist in rural and inner-city areas
  • Athletes in these communities are 50% more likely to have a concussion that goes unidentified, unassessed or mismanaged
  • 1 in 20 rural students specialize in one sport, compared to 7 in 20 at suburban schools

A Project Play initiative of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, “Reimagining School Sports” recognizes the essential role that high schools play in preparing young people for life – and the cognitive, educational and health benefits that flow to students whose bodies are in motion. The initiative aims to make quality sport and physical activities accessible to all students by identifying strategies that administrators and other leaders can adopt, aligned with the mission of schools and within the context of a comprehensive education.

The Aspen Institute invited all schools to share their innovations and apply for recognition. A $20,000 award is given to one winner in each of eight school types, made possible by our project partners – Adidas/BOKS, the DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation, and Hospital for Special Surgery. Reports on each school type are being released in 2021, followed by a final report in early 2022 that will make systems-level recommendations that can drive progress across all school types.

Nationally, more rural schools offer interscholastic sports than suburban or urban schools, and the percentage of rural students who play on high school teams is correspondingly higher than their suburban or urban counterparts. But the story shifts for the smallest rural schools, where smaller student populations, greater travel and transportation needs, and shrinking tax bases present challenges. Rural students want to play: in the Aspen Institute’s national survey of high school students, rural students were more likely to have participated in walking/hiking, pickup games/free play, jogging and swimming than all surveyed students. Some fresh perspective in this report can help update the model so rural students aren’t left behind.