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New study shows school sports improve grades, all while districts wrangle with cuts

A new study commissioned by the Los Angeles Unified School District provides evidence that could be reassuring or troubling, depending on the amount of sports action provided by your local schools.

Los Angeles University boys basketball player Victor Nwaba

Los Angeles University boys basketball player Victor Nwaba

As reported by the Los Angeles Times' Eric Sondheimer, LAUSD has discovered a striking correlation between students' participation in interscholastic athletics and their performance in both attendance and in the classroom. According to the study, the 35,000 student athletes in LAUSD attended an average of 21 more days of school per year than their counterparts, while they also sported GPAs some 0.55 to 0.74 points higher than non-athletes.

Both of those statistics are pretty staggering when you consider that GPAs are typically calculated on a scale of 0.00-4.00 and students attend an average of 180 days per school year.

"[The study statistics] prove what has generally been assumed, that participation in high school athletics, on average, positively enhances the student's academic progress in comparison with the rest of the student body," LAUSD commissioner of athletics Barbara Fiege said in a memo to the districts schools, obtained by the Times.

"I believe that a large part of this is due to the intervention and guidance provided daily by qualified coaches, who understand the relationship between academic and athletic success."

[Related: Teen graduates two years after being paralyzed by hockey hit]

While all of these trends could be seen as positive signs for school districts with robust athletic departments, they also bring up troubling concerns when sports simply aren't available. Disturbingly, that's becoming a much more common reality in many districts across the nation.

As Prep Rally previously reported, all interscholastic athletics in Jacksonville, Fla., were set to be canceled for the 2011-12 season until dramatic funding efforts by third parties were able to keep sports in Duval County Schools on track for another year. Another district in California also seriously considered canceling all sports as a way to close a massive budget shortfall.

Similarly, one Ohio high school canceled all athletics during a prior enormous budget shortfall and required a significant tax levy to raise money for sports to be brought back to Grove City (Ohio) High.

While those two incidents serve as rather apocalyptic anecdotes, plenty of other school districts across the country have cut back on the number or breadth of sports they offer, either eliminating junior varsity and freshmen programs or, in some cases, cutting out entire sports where participation numbers were deemed insufficient to justify their continuation.

The findings also bring the motivation behind one Texas district into question. In January, the Premont (Texas) Independent School District unilaterally canceled all interscholastic athletics so that students would be forced to focus on improving their grades and the school's collective marks.

With signs that school districts will continue to face an uphill battle for athletic funding, the Times' findings may underscore an intriguing chicken-and-egg problem for schools across the country: If sports are among the best ways to help aid academic achievement, how can those schools continue to improve in the classroom without the money to fund sports or other alternative academic programs to bridge the achievement gap created when sports are cut?

The time will come where that riddle must be answered, likely sooner rather than later. In fact, now would be the time for anyone with a brilliant idea to speak out, because schools would likely consider any outside-of-the-box concepts that come to mind.

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