Despite athletic commitments, test records show athletes are performing above the norm

The National Sport School focuses on training athletes, but government records show that they have some of the highest grades in the city, partly due to what a school official described as distance learning technologies and flexible schedules. But a connection between athletics and good grades may also play a role.

Established in 1994, National Sport School focuses on giving young athletes the flexibility to continue their intensive athletic training and compete in sports while completing high school.

But, according to Alberta Education, the sport school’s students had the second highest average diploma test score in Biology 30 with 77.5 per cent, sitting only behind Sir Winston Churchill. Along with that second place finish, they also tied for the third highest in English 30-1, coming in at 77.5 per cent, and had the highest Social Studies 30-2 score in Calgary, with an average of 82.9 per cent.

While some of their other grades weren’t as standout, the students also excelled in Mathematics 30-1 and Physics 30, ranking eighth and 10th in the city.

Principal Ken Weipert says students were able to achieve those test scores and still compete athletically because of the distant learning technologies the school uses, allowing them constant access to information wherever they are in the world.

“It provides opportunities for students to continue their learning when they’re out and about traveling the world for competitions or training,” Weipert says. “The opportunity to access all of the curriculum is still there.”

The students have the added opportunity to have a face-to-face connection with their teacher, which differs from an online course.Irene Shkolnikov’s four-legged companion, Elle, helps her jump to the heights needed to achieve high academic and athletic scores at NSS.

Photo by Mary Yohannes

Irene Shkolnikov, who has been a student at the sport school since the ninth grade, has experienced that firsthand.

“My chemistry course is completely self directed,” says Shkolnikov, a high jumper who trains with Alberta Ballet on the side. “You go online and there is a whole check list that you have to complete, and the teacher is in class and there if you ever need any help.”

In addition to the distance learning technologies, the sport school offers flexible schedules for their students.

Depending on the day, Shkolnikov starts her training in the morning before her classes.

Classes at the school are from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., however, Shkolnikov says the teachers at the school are willing to accommodate their students’ sports schedules, which proves to be very helpful.

“If I train in the morning, I might be a little late to first period,” Shkolnikov says. “That’s okay because they’re accommodating to that.”

Shkolnikov attempted to train in California when she wasn’t a student at the sport school, and struggled to catch up with the course load.

“I basically failed all my courses and had to catch up, it’s just the reality of that, and this is what NSS is about.” Shkolnikov says.

Kyle Shewfelt, a three time Olympian and former student at the sport school had a similar experience as Shkolnikov when he was a student.

“It allowed for a flexible schedule where I could put most of my focus on chasing my sporting goals, but still excel in school, says the 32-year-old gymnast who attended the school in 1998.

But Weipert says there’s also a “definite relationship between focus and commitment in sport and focus and commitment in school.”

Weipert’s statement has been backed up by multiple studies on the connection between academics and physical activity. For example, a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found 60 minutes of physical activity could increase students’ grade from a C to a B.

Dolly Lambdin, a clinical professor in the Department of Kinesiology & Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin confirms the link between such activity and academic achievement.

Also in ballet, Irene Shkolnikov balances school and sport effectively at National Sport School. 

Photo illustration by Maria Dardano“[Physical activity] is helpful in terms of academic performance,” says Lambdin who is also the president of SHAPE America. “Physical activity helps stimulate the development of blood vessels to the brain which brings better blood to the brain so it works better. It releases neurotransmitters which helps the brain cells develop.”

But even though physical activity is a strong contributor to a student’s grade, students say they wouldn’t have been successful without the techniques the school uses to ensure their academic success.

Weipert says that they have achieved success by communicating with their students on a personal level.

“Each school, the culture, the community, as well as the level of support from the parents and staff varies… but by providing an opportunity to get to know their students on a personal and academic level [the National Sport School] lets them meet the needs of the students.”

Indeed, according to Shkolnikov, “The school motto is ‘Culture of Excellence’ and you try to embrace that in everything you do.”

mdardano@cjournal.ca & myohannes@cjournal.ca