Pay-to-Play Sports: How One Michigan District Ensures Access for All  

Some of Cara Jones’ best friends today are the women she played basketball with in middle and high school.

Jones knows what a powerful formative experience sports can be for young people and it’s her job to make sure the opportunity to play exists for all kids who attend Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS).

“You learn so much from being on a team and I want to make sure that is available to everyone,” Jones said.

Since taking the helm as Director of GR8 Sports, Great Kids three years ago, Jones has worked to build relationships within GRPS and throughout the community. The program ensures access to K-8 students regardless of their ability to pay and is a division of the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation (SAF).

Cara Jones poses with athletes from Grand Rapids Public Schools during a track meet.
Cara Jones with Grand Rapids Public Schools track and field athletes.

Jones’ work recently caught the eye of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, which awarded her a 2017 Leadership Award in the Good-to-Great category, which recognizes an individual who has inspired a program to achieve a level of greatness.

“She took what was just an idea and created a robust and exciting opportunity to engage the community around after-school sports for K-8 GRPS students,” said Michele Suchovsky, SAF Executive Director. “Her ability to energize in endlessly creative ways is something I admire most.”

“Cara has done an awesome job raising awareness about elementary sports,” said Abby Clayton, who coaches basketball at Coit Creative Arts Academy. “The fact that it is a free program, games are free for spectators, and that the kids get jerseys – it makes it all feel so official and real for the kids.”

A young Grand Rapids Public Schools athlete winds his arm back to throw the shot put at a track meet.
A young GRPS athlete participates in the shot put event during a track and field meet at Houseman Field.

Making sports accessible in elementary and middle school just makes sense, Jones said. The experience sparks leadership, teamwork, confidence, and grit, she explained. Having feeder teams also contributes to a successful varsity program.

Before GR8 Sports, Great Kids, students who couldn’t afford to play at younger ages would find themselves trying out their sport for the first time as 9th-graders and competing against kids who had more experience. Not only was that not a great experience for students, it could also be unsafe in sports such as football.

Now, the district has about 5,400 students participating in K-8 sports every year, with six athletic offerings at the elementary school level and 15 for middle school students. Jones said that early exposure to sports is having a positive effect on high school teams. For example, the girls’ varsity volleyball team at Ottawa Hills High School recently won its first game in 10 years. Other GRPS athletes and teams have qualified for district- and state-level competition.

Jones is working with the district’s athletics department to build a culture of participation for students and their families. GRPS students face a lot of hurdles to participate and the mission of GR8 Sports, Great Kids is to remove as many of the obstacles they can, she said.

“We have some pretty stellar kids,” Jones said. “We have a lot of adversity and it means a lot when they show up to practice because it’s not always easy to get there.”

Showing up for sports can also translate to improved academic performance. A 2014 assessment of middle school athletes showed they scored seven percent higher on standardized tests than non-athletes in the district. Additionally, Jones said there have been a number of first-generation college graduates coming out of the varsity sports programs.

“If basketball is what gets you to come to school every day … the fact of the matter is you are there and you are learning something,” Jones said.

The problem of affording athletics programs is one more and more districts are facing. In the Ottawa-Kent conference GRPS plays in, 75 percent of districts require some form of pay-to-play when it comes to sports. That means not everyone who would like to play sports can as families with tight budgets make difficult decisions about how to spend finite resources.

“At some point, people have to make decisions and sometimes athletics are the thing that don’t make the cut,” Jones said.

Other districts have reached out to her to find out how GR8 Sports Great Kids works and Jones sees it as a model other communities might want to embrace.

“Grand Rapids should be proud,” Jones said. “I think we’re beating the national trend.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network are proud to support the SAF’s annual MindShare event, as well as GRPS’ annual Turkey Trot 5K race.

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Photos courtesy of Cara Jones

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