Student Activities Levels Up

Starting as early as 6 a.m. on some weekends, school buses pull up to dozens of Dallas ISD schools to pick up hundreds of students to take them to contests, debates, chess tournaments, esports championships and an array of other extracurricular activities.

On any given Saturday throughout the school year, students can be found on one side of town debating current political and social issues while on another end of the city, others are tumbling at a cheer workshop, playing chess down the road at Skyline High School’s gym, or dueling it out at the esports lab at Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy. Student Activities currently sponsors 13 districtwide programs in which students from kindergarten through 12th grade can participate.

In the 2021-2022 school year, more than 130,000 Dallas ISD students participated in at least one extracurricular activity, ranging from athletics to academic competitions to visual and performing arts. Of those students, more than 16,150 participated in 13 activities sponsored by Student Activities.

Dallas ISD’s Student Activities Department team are committed to making sure that students from across the district have the opportunity to participate in activities that enrich their educational experience and advance their skills.

The department prides itself in offering something for everyone with no shortage of activities. There are team competitions and individual contests ranging from academics to gaming. There are also campus-based, co-curricular courses offered like academic decathlon, debate, cheer, yearbook, and newspaper.

“We provide students with opportunities to participate in the department-sponsored activities at no cost,” said Leonidas Patterson, director of Student Activities. “Providing participation options allows students to explore their passions and interests while introducing them to new experiences beyond the academic day.”

For participating schools, Student Activities provides everything needed from study materials and equipment to meals and transportation. As an added bonus, campus-designated coaches receive stipends and are given opportunities to participate in workshops to better help prepare their students for success.

Adrienne McCann, a W.H. Gaston Middle School teacher, was one of more than 1,500 teachers who sponsored a Student Activities program last year. She is not only the campus activity coordinator but also sponsors several academic events at the school.

“Student Activities has been a great help with encouraging students to become lifelong learners through a variety of activities,” McCann said. “Our students are more engaged in learning core content materials while pairing the things they learn in the classroom with competitions like debate, UIL, [academic] pentathlon, and robotics.”

One of McCann’s students, Max Lopez, said debate improved his test-taking skills on the STAAR Reading exam. “Being in debate helped me comprehend and analyze what I was reading,” Lopez said. “I was able to answer the questions related to the text.”

He added, “Plus, I can argue a ton better now.” 

Leveling Up

This year, programs are being expanded and participation is projected to rise. Additions include chess for grades kindergarten through second grade, cheer and esports for fourth and fifth grades, and yearbook for middle school grades.

“Getting students involved in extracurricular activities is certainly a priority for the district leadership team and the Board of Trustees,” said Sharla Hudspeth, executive director of Extracurricular and Extended Learning Opportunities. “Expanding programs provides students a chance to participate in extracurriculars as early as possible. Early participation will lead to continued involvement as well as better outcomes in academic achievement and social-emotional learning.”

Because of this, most programs are vertically aligned from elementary to high school. For instance, a student can master the intricacies of chess by being able to stay involved for 13 years if they start in kindergarten and continue through their senior year.

Several programs come with special acknowledgments of merit and achievement.  Cheer, debate, academic decathlon, and UIL academics offer opportunities to earn letter jackets for students who meet certain criteria. Also, scholarships are available through cheer, decathlon, debate, UIL, and esports.

Aside from merit-based recognitions, students reap the added benefit of life experience. Through participation in extracurricular activities, students have been to cities all over Texas, and to New York, Kentucky, Washington D.C., California, Tennessee, and Kansas. They travel by bus and by plane, stay in hotels, see historic sites, and eat meals together as a team, all while creating lifelong memories.

While Dallas ISD students participate in local, regional, state, and national competitions throughout the year, they are building social and networking skills, broadening their minds to new ideas, and thinking about paths they want to take in the future, Patterson said. In addition, competitions are often hosted by a college or university, giving students a glimpse at college life.

But it doesn’t stop there. The benefits of participating in student activities go beyond preparing kids for the world and instilling in them the skills needed for success, said Julian Spearman, Student Activities coordinator.

“The real magic is the sense of belonging students get from being involved in extracurricular activities,” he added. “I have had students come up to me at a tournament and tell me about how they never felt like there was anything for them until esports came along, and how they feel part of something.”

Student Activities Department Programs

Academic UIL (Grades 2-12)

The University Interscholastic League provides 23 high school and 17 elementary and middle school academic competitive events that challenge students to think critically, exhibiting much more than knowledge and comprehension.

Cheer (Grades 4-12)

Cheer creates and promotes school spirit while encouraging quality performance and high academic standards. Through the development of spirit and cheer technique, cheerleaders will encourage their student body and their community through support in the promotion of athletic events and activities.

Chess (Grades K-12)

The districtwide chess program provides students the opportunity to showcase their problem-solving and critical thinking skills at school and chess tournaments.

Debate (Grades 5-12)

The partnerships with the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance and Debate|Able provide Dallas ISD secondary and elementary school students the opportunity to participate in competitive academic debate programs.

Decathlon (Grades 9-12)­­

Academic Decathlon is a theme-based, ten-event scholastic team competition wherein students match their intellect with students from other schools.

Destination Imagination (Grades K-12)

Destination Imagination motivates young people to look for the challenges in life and see them as opportunities for growth. DI inspires students to solve problems, search for creative solutions, and to work cooperatively with others.

Esports (Grades 4-12)

With weekly practices and tournaments, students will be able to improve their gaming skills and develop a sense of community and involvement at school and in the esports community.

Link Crew (Grades 11-12)

An elite group of juniors and seniors, Link Crew leaders organize and implement the freshman orientation on their campuses. The freshman transition program provides members of the freshman class with support and guidance to improve their overall first-year experience in high school. Participating high schools are Adams, Adamson, Business, Gilliam, Law, Madison, Samuell, Seagoville, Skyline, and Wilson.

Lone Star Challenge (Grades 4-6)

Lone Star Challenge is the elementary competition equivalent to Academic Decathlon and Academic Pentathlon. Lone Star is a theme-based four-event scholastic team competition wherein fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade students match their intellect with students from other schools.

Pentathlon (Grades 6-8)

Academic Pentathlon is a theme-based, five-event scholastic team competition wherein sixth, seventh and eighth-grade students match their intellect with students from other schools.

Student Publications (Grades 6-12)

Student publications supported by Dallas ISD are secondary yearbook and high school newspaper programs. Staff members are charged with producing professional publications that showcase their design, writing, and photography skills.

Texas Math & Science Coaches Association (Grades 3-12)

Involvement in TMSCA invitational meets provides students the opportunity to practice UIL math and science contests through grade level and team competitions. Contests include Number Sense, Calculator Applications, Mathematics, and Science.

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