By Mark Singer
In the final practice before the end of his team’s season, Terrell Walsh pleaded with the players to leave everything on the court the following day. On March 1, the Senn Bulldogs boys basketball team was set to play in the school’s first regional semifinals in nine years.
Senn isn’t known for its athletic prowess. Nearly every banner hanging inside the school’s gym marks an accomplishment earned in the 20th century. But that could be changing soon. Second-year principal Mary Beck is determined to improve the school’s sports program.
“It’s something I’m dedicated to and I’ve been trying to build since I got there last year,” said Beck, a former high school basketball coach.
Senn is among the latest schools to recognize the benefits of investing in athletics. A 2012 study of more than 100,000 Kansas high school students showed that “athletes earned higher grades, graduated at a higher rate, dropped out of school less frequently, and scored higher on state assessments than did non-athletes.”
Dr. Kevin Kniffin, a behavioral scientist at Cornell University, published a study in 2014 that examines the benefits of high school sports. The study, “Sports at Work: Anticipated and Persistent Correlates of Participation in High School Athletics,” argues that participation in high school sports results in more self-confidence and greater leadership ability, among other benefits.
“As long as there’s a commitment that the benefits of sports-participation should be democratically or equally accessible, then it’s clear that school districts shouldn’t be cutting sports programs,” Kniffin wrote in an email to Medill Reports.
Beck would like to see Senn’s athletics match the prowess of its arts program. Three Senn seniors recently completed the selective Chicago Arts Access Program designed through the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Since becoming principal, Beck has made several coaching changes and devoted more resources toward athletics, although any amount would be considered an increase.
“By more money, it literally went from no money to standard funding,” she said. “[Senn] just lost $180,000. It’s not like we’re rolling in the dough and I’m just throwing money at athletics. I haven’t taken anything away from the arts program.”
Beck served as interim principal for the 2015-16 school year, after former principal Susan Lofton was ousted for conspiring with two other employees to keep 15 special needs students out of the school’s fine arts program.
Lofton was far from an enthusiastic supporter of athletics at Senn, according to athletic director Robert Spurlin. In addition to the school’s teams suffering from a lack of resources, Lofton also went after the physical education program. According to Spurlin, Lofton occasionally replaced mandatory physical education with kinesiology, a class with no physical requirements that studied the mechanics of body movements.
“I have a different vision toward athletics and their role and ability than my predecessor,” Beck said. “Just being on a team in general is so important for students to develop into functioning adults.”
Senn historically has tried to expand students’ interests beyond the classroom. As a wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate school, every student participates in the IB program, a non-profit educational foundation that works with schools to better develop students and teachers.
“Part of the IB philosophy, especially for all our ninth and 10th graders, is to be really well-rounded,” Beck said.
A 2010 study by University of Minnesota professor Claudia Fox found participation in athletics played a beneficial role beyond academic outcomes. According to the study, sports participation also promotes identification with the school and school-related values.
Beck sees sports as a bridge for the various programs and tracks to bring students together.
“You have the IB program, the arts program and then the neighborhood program,” she said. “But on the sports teams, it’s clearly everybody.”
Senn fell 78-40 to Lake View in the IHSA 3A playoff game March 1, but that loss hardly diminishes what the team accomplished this season. At 12-7, the Bulldogs finished the year with a winning record for the second time this decade, and with more combined wins than the team had between 2010-14.
Spurlin was among those caught off guard by the team’s run to the postseason.
“These guys weren’t supposed to do anything, and here they are in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s a great first step for the program.”
Senn’s boys basketball team wasn’t alone in its success this season. The girls basketball team also finished 12-7, posting double-digit wins for the first time ever. The football team ended the year at 5-4, the group’s second winning season since 2010.
Student support for teams could still improve. Spurlin said Senn had trouble filling seats for basketball games if tickets cost more than $1.
“We don’t have any pep rallies like you have in some other schools,” boys soccer coach Steven Brewer said. “I haven’t really noticed excitement for the basketball team.”
Sophomore point guard Noah Chapman didn’t notice a boost in enthusiasm for the team among the student body. He’s hopeful that will change in the future as the team improves.
“We just have to focus on getting better and the rest will come,” he said.
Beck is pleased with the progress of the school’s teams she’s seen in the short time she’s been at Senn.
“We had some success with our basketball program [this season],” she said. “Both our girls and boys went a little bit farther than they ever have. Our football team has had a resurgence. I expect great things from our girls softball and soccer this spring. Our boys volleyball should be pretty good too.”
With Beck in charge of the school and Spurlin at the helm of the athletic department, the future of the Senn Bulldogs finally looks bright.