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VOL. 10 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 23, 2017

Enhanced Athletic Facilities Significant Part of Independent School Draw

By Don Wade

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Over the last decade or so, Memphis-area independent schools have made major improvements in their athletic facilities – to the point it sometimes looks like an athletics arms race mimicking what is happening across college campuses.

“The private school sector is definitely a competitive marketplace,” said Ken Kimble, senior advancement officer at Christian Brothers High School.

The largest recent project is the $10 million in improvements at CBHS in 2016 that included a new locker room, weight room, wrestling venue and sports medicine facility. But CBHS is also a different place than when it opened in 1965. Back then, 150 boys participated in a handful of sports. Not only have the sports offerings expanded since then, but 650 boys – or two-thirds of the student body – are now involved in sports.

So there are practical considerations. Before the sports medicine facility opened, Kimble said, “We were treating kids in the hall.”

However, there’s also no denying that, at some level, there is a race underway. Not necessarily for enrollment – though in some cases that’s true – or to lure the best athletes in a particular sport – though that’s been known to happen at many schools and is another story for another day.

Kevin Locastro spent much of his career working at CBHS. Today, he is football coach and athletics director at Lausanne Collegiate School. He says it was just a matter of time until CBHS, which drew from alumni and a fundraising campaign, made the substantial improvements that it did.

“Probably a lot of schools in Shelby County are behind Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee schools, public and private, to be honest with you,” Locastro said.

Since 1999, Briarcrest has invested about $10 million in athletic facilities at its Eads campus. Among the more recent additions is a new weight room completed in 2014 for $190,000. The school spent almost $3 million from 1999 to 2003 on football, baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts and a skybox.

Enrollment for the 2010-11 school year for ages 2 through 12th grade was at 1,595 students. This academic year it is at 1,646, a 3.3 percent increase

“It’s hard to draw a one-to-one correlation,” said Briarcrest president Mark Merrill. “Even hardcore athletic families are looking at more than the athletic piece. But it has helped enrollment. And we have (sports) at the elementary level under the school umbrella. It’s a program that feeds from the bottom up.”

Pretty much every independent school’s athletic program operates in a similar fashion. The branding starts early.

As students get older, they – or more importantly, their parents – begin comparison shopping. And athletic facilities are a huge part of the equation.

At ECS, the most recent major enhancement was the $800,000 artificial turf football field and stadium project in 2011.

“For us, what drove it was functionality,” said ECS athletics director Tommy Danner. “We can use it for lacrosse, boys and girls soccer, football, middle school. It serves a lot of teams.”

It also gets noticed, like any state-of-the-art athletic facility would.

“It’s kind of like eye candy,” Danner said. “Drive by and you’ve got a wow factor.”

Adding artificial turf, no doubt, is seen as a positive by some parents and student-athletes. But not everyone agrees that it’s the best option. Briarcrest considered an artificial surface for its football field, but chose grass because of injury concerns.

“We’ve taken the position there’s a reason the majority of SEC schools play on grass,” Merrill said.

At MUS, where recent new improvements include four new indoor tennis courts, the decision was made several years ago to have artificial turf on the football field (about $750,000) and on the infield of the baseball field (around $450,000).

“Here’s my opinion about turf,” said athletics director Bobby Alston. “The cost is the same if you tried to keep the grass field playable at the same quality as the turf in all circumstances.”

Many schools also have the challenge of being “landlocked.” That was the case in 1972 for First Assembly Christian School when it opened its doors on Highland Avenue in Memphis. Before moving in 1999 to its current location on Walnut Grove Road in Cordova, there was nowhere to put a football field and games were played offsite at a field in Bartlett.

The school also offered just a few sports then and now has expanded to the point it even offers trap shooting. Today, the Cordova campus has football, baseball and softball fields and a track.

But FACS head of school Wendell Meadows said, “We didn’t grow our athletic program to boost enrollment,” adding that the arts program also has been expanded and teaching from a Christian worldview and maintaining solid academics remains primary. “Having said that, it is true that secondary students, in particular, are attracted to schools that offer a broad range of extracurricular activities, and rightly so.”

Lausanne headmaster Stuart McCathie came to the school from North Carolina more than a decade ago. Lausanne didn’t have football then – the program is in just its fifth year, baseball will be in its third year – and he knew from experience Friday night football provided a gathering place for students, faculty and families.

McCathie believed strongly that Lausanne needed that opportunity to embrace community.

“From a strategic point of view, we were missing out on that social aspect,” he said.

Sports can’t drive enrollment at Lausanne, McCathie says, because they’re full. Still, at minimum, the quality of athletic facilities can be a determining factor when parents and student-athletes are choosing among schools. Lausanne, too, went with an artificial turf football field and also has a re-imagined weight room.

Alston recalls that when the MUS basketball gym was built more than two decades ago it was “like a palace.” Now, it’s the football and baseball fields and new tennis courts that make the larger impression. And that may be truer of parents than the kids who actually will play on the fields and courts.

“They’re paying over 20 grand for kids to go to school,” Alston said. “They’re expecting everything to be a certain quality.”

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