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Locked Out

Crushed championship dreams, scholarships in jeopardy, unkindled friendships & lifetime memories lost for high school athletes caught in teacher labour strife

A national capital senior boys’ silver medalist last year, Alex Berhe is one of many high school athletes who saw their fall seasons shut down due to a labour dispute between English public school board teachers and the provincial government. The Grade 12 Woodroffe Tigers cross-country runner worries that his chances of obtaining a university athletic scholarship will be hurt since he won’t be able to prove himself at the OFSAA provincial championships. Photo: Dan Plouffe

By Dan Plouffe & Anne Duggan

For Alex Berhe, the 2012 high school cross-country season was his shot at redemption.

Running on his home course at OFSAA in Ottawa last year, the Woodroffe Tigers athlete was a threat for the provincial podium, but finished a disappointing 18th place.

“I don’t know what was wrong with me,” Berhe reflects. “I just didn’t have my race on the day.”

He would have enjoyed another chance to prove himself this fall, but his school was one of many that did not enter teams due to a teachers’ labour conflict. But what Berhe laments even more is the possibility that he may lose an even bigger opportunity.

“It kind of brings my chances down of getting a scholarship, and for other schools to look at me,” notes the student who returned to Woodroffe this fall for a second year of Grade 12 in order to upgrade some of his credits to university pre-requisites. “When you run for your school, that’s when universities look at you and see who the good runners are.”

Berhe hopes he’ll still find his way to an athletic scholarship through contacts with his Ottawa Lions track-and-field club, but not everyone has those options, he highlights.

“People who were relying on scholarships are kind of screwed,” explains Berhe, noting many seniors now have to take on jobs to save up for post-secondary studies. “It’s bad for people. You might not get scholarships, which is what you’ve been working for all from Grade 9 up to your senior year.

“All of sudden, there’s no sports and you can’t really do nothing.”

The loss of high school sports is also a missed opportunity to build memories and friendships, Berhe adds. After moving to Ottawa from Ethiopia in 2004, Berhe says running helped him integrate into Canadian life. Win or lose, the bright 18-year-old would always hug his competitors – also close friends – from other local schools following races.

“Now I know more people,” Berhe underlines. “And if it wasn’t for running, right now I probably wouldn’t be focused on university.”

Sports motivating academics

Ali Mohsen, in Grade 12 at Rideau High School, is another student who went back for a “victory lap” and is now left without the possibility of victory.

The Rams soccer team player lost the Tier 1 national capital championship by a single goal last season, and was also one win away from a city title in his Grade 10 year.

“I’m really upset,” Mohsen emphasizes. “We would have had a strong team.”

While he misses seeing game action, Mohsen is thankful he still has a club team to train with, although that’s not the case for the majority of his teammates, who aren’t playing at all this year.

“A couple played club soccer, but most of them are new to the sport, or at least to organized soccer,” explains the Iraq-born student. “But we actually worked pretty well as a team, we fit in good.”

Sports acted as a major tool for many of his teammates to get through high school, Mohsen adds.

“It keeps us away from trouble and all that stuff, you know?” he describes. “If I miss a class, they tell me I can’t play, so it makes me go to class.

“It’s motivation for a lot of people. They come to school and they want to be something.”

There are countless similar stories across the city, as many English public schools didn’t enter teams this fall in girls’ basketball, senior boys’ volleyball, boys’ soccer, football, field hockey, golf and cross-country running.

A handful of teams could very well be missing OFSAA trips and provincial medals. Under-16 800 m national track bronze medalist Erinn Stenman-Fahey made a strong OFSAA debut in her rookie running season last year along with her Canterbury Chargers teammates.

With many members of the Ottawa Fusion volleyball club’s national silver medalists on their team, the Lisgar Lords would have been major contenders in the ‘AAA’ senior boys’ volleyball ranks. Among those affected is national tournament all-star Ben Harper, the Prime Minister’s son.

The current situation stems from a bill passed in early September by the Ontario government that freezes teacher wages for two years, bans strikes, and reduces sick days while not allowing them to be carried over year-to-year. French and Catholic board teacher unions reached understandings with the government for the two-year period and have carried on with sports as usual. The English public board unions, however, encouraged teachers to think carefully about whether to volunteer their time with extra-curricular activities.

Without a vote from union members to back a full work-to-rule campaign before the fall sport entry deadline, the less-powerful “choose wisely” message has created different scenarios across the province and across the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

Teachers from some schools decided en masse to continue coaching, with support from their athletic directors. That includes Colonel By (with the surprise exception of its traditionally powerful cross-country team) and Glebe – the two schools that finished atop the high school rankings compiled by former Ottawa Citizen reporter Martin Cleary for the past six years.

Some schools have a handful of teams coached by teachers who decided to go ahead, while some elected not to enter any – many out of fear that a later full-out work-to-rule would cause them to shut down teams midway through their seasons.

Some schools’ principals and teachers did all they could to accommodate parent or community volunteers willing to step in and coach, while some would-be volunteers met resistance at other schools.

In general, the best sports schools have their best teams playing this fall, schools in wealthier neighbourhoods have some teams running thanks to the parents who were able to scream loudest to let them volunteer, and schools in poorer areas have no teams.

That discrepancy wasn’t lost on OCDSB trustees, who instructed staff to “pay particular attention to our high-needs schools and our schools in rural areas where the activities may have extra importance for the students in those schools,” board of trustees chair Jennifer McKenzie explains. The trustees also passed a motion asking staff to do everything reasonably possible to encourage volunteers to run extra-curricular activities.

There’s still a persisting concern that champion teams may not be able to attend OFSAA since rules state that a teacher must be present. But it is not expected to be a major issue since schools are committed to finding solutions such as using occasional teachers or administrators in that role if necessary, OCDSB associate director of education Walter Piovesan indicates.

Inequalities at different schools

For students such as Mohsen, getting to the point where they’d have to deal with that type of problem would be a dream.

“I’m jealous because other schools get to play,” he explains. “You can’t keep one team down while others get to play. I’m mad.”

Berhe feels similarly upset.

“It’s not fair that other schools have sports, even in the same board,” he says, pointing out that the unequal ground lessens the incentive to broker a solution to the conflict. “If the strike continues, people won’t fight to have sports come back, they’ll just try to change schools and go to the one that has the sports.”

That’s an option three members of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Lancers girls’ basketball team say they are seriously considering as they look down the road at the full slate of sports at St. Peter Catholic High School.

The girls provided a representative image of the inequity that exists this fall as they spoke about their frustrations on their school field sidelines as they watched pre-game warm-ups for the Lancers’ football team, which is coached by Eric Kukkonen, both a teacher- and parent-coach thanks to his son Stephan’s role as starting quarterback.

“I’m angry about it. It’s all boys teams,” the basketball girls note, each completing one another’s thoughts. “Girls don’t get anything. They don’t think it’s as important to us. It’s total BS.”

The Lancers senior girls won the city Tier 2 basketball title in 2011, and the members of last year’s junior team were looking forward to rejoining a talented group of seniors.

“We were going to be defending champions this year,” one player notes. “I was really excited to play with them, and then I was really devastated when we couldn’t.”

Each of the girls used to play community basketball with Gloucester-Cumberland, but now they aren’t playing together at all, competitively or recreationally. It’s not as fun to be on sidelines, but the trio made the best of what they had left by hanging out and continuing their friendships that were created through sport.

“I met her because of basketball in Grade 9,” explains one girl who wasn’t keen to have her name used in the newspaper. “We never used to like each other until we had to play basketball together. That’s the truth.”

‘Memories worth building’

The Ottawa Sportspage contacted numerous dedicated teacher-coaches, but most declined interview requests – many nonetheless expressing their sadness about the situation.

Glebe coach and national capital cross-country league convenor Kirk Dillabaugh did highlight the important role sports play in high schools.

“For a lot of students who can’t afford the time and money community sports take, high school sports is there for them,” notes Dillabaugh, whose daughter, Adara, competes for the Gryphons. “Cross-country running is so cheap, anyone can run on a high school team. It’s important to be part of something when you are in high school.

“When I look back at my high school years, I don’t remember what happened in the class, just what happened with my buddies on the sports teams. Those memories are worth building.

“It’s sad the fields are smaller, but I don’t begrudge my colleagues’ decisions.”

Even for those athletes who are competing this year, it won’t be the same, they maintain.

“It will always be the year of work-to-rule where many schools and athletes didn’t participate,” says cross-country runner Tim Austen, also a Glebe student council member. “Of course the results aren’t going to be respected. It has definitely put a negative spin on this year.”

Few of the athletes offered opinions either way on the political battle. Most felt helpless.

“I think it’s stupid why they’re fighting with the sports,” offers one of the Lancer basketball players. “I think they should just settle it.”

The Lancers girls will be a little calmer about the whole thing as long as they get to play basketball next year, and play rugby in the spring.

“We’re hoping,” they add. “But especially for the Grade 12s, it was their last year.

“It was their last year to play.”

Asked if there was any message they wished to share with those involved in the dispute, the Lancers answered unanimously with a single voice, loud and clear.

“Bring us our sports back!”

The time to step up and coach is now to save winter sports teams

A resolution to the teachers’ dispute seems unlikely prior to the Oct. 31 winter team entry deadline, so the time for parents and community volunteers to step up and coach a team is now. The OCDSB expects to have a centralized volunteer processing system in place by Wednesday, Oct. 17, board staff says. The procedures to become a volunteer for extra-curricular activities include:

1. Start by contacting school principal

2. Developed in consultation with their school council, principals will have a list of activities where volunteers are needed

3. Principal will speak or meet with volunteer

4. Volunteer to complete screening forms from OCDSB web site

5. Led by retired principals, board will review volunteer applications

6. Volunteers to receive training in relevant policies and procedures

7. Information provided about role and expectations for duties

8. Approval from board

9. Meet with principal again to review operational issues/procedures

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