For teenagers with Olympic or NCAA athletic dreams, a growing breed of sports-focused high schools are offering the flexibility to place major emphasis on physical training and practice while continuing to pursue academics.
These facilities, often called sports academies, differ substantially, with some offering higher quality academics than others, says Karen Gross, a former college president and parent to a ski academy graduate. They include boarding schools that integrate training into the daily routine; day schools that focus on sports; hybrid schools that blend physical and digital education; and online-only platforms.
Many have substantial accomplishments in the sports world. For example, Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, which focuses on competitive skiing, has produced 36 Olympians, seven of whom competed in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
“There is enormous value to sports-related high schools for the right student,” Gross says. “The latter caveat is key. Sports academies are not right for all young people.”
Interest in Sports Schools is Growing
At the same time, education experts say the space is expanding. “In the last year, we’ve seen explosive growth” in families looking for a non-traditional educational option for their student athletes, Betty Norton, president of education for Xceed Preparatory Academy, a network of schools, wrote in an email.
The Xceed schools have a hybrid model that allows students to do class work through a virtual platform and meet with teachers either on campus or online. Flexible schedules and personalized learning plans give students the ability to work at their own pace, on their own time, Norton says.
Xceed has been growing its network, adding sports-focused high schools such as DME Academy in Daytona Beach, Florida; the OTE Academy in Atlanta, Georgia; and Oakmoor Hockey Academy in Urbandale, Iowa, in recent months.
Xceed is not the only organization seeing growth. This year, IMG Academy, a sports boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, welcomed its largest- fall enrollment in the school’s 40-year history. Over the decades, the academy has developed an integrated approach to academics, athletics and performance, Tim Pernetti, IMG’s chief operating officer, wrote in an email.
“The growth comes from our continued investment in our academic and athletic offerings, as well as expansion of our state-of-the-art facilities,” Pernetti says. “Beyond that, growth is a by-product of the continued success of our current students, as well as our alumni.”
With a 600-acre campus, IMG has more than 1,200 student-athletes in grades 6-12 and post-graduates from 49 U.S. states and more than 60 countries. Between 2018 and 2020, 44% of IMG students went to a university with NCAA Division I athletics, Pernetti says, and 92% overall attended college. IMG says it has produced more NFL players on 2021 kickoff weekend rosters than any other U.S. high school.
A Coach Weighs In
Teens who are pursuing elite-level ranking — an accomplishment that often includes international travel — tend to have complicated lifestyles that aren’t always conducive to the traditional high school’s bell schedule. They may need to train several hours a day, travel to regional or international competitions and build in time to acclimate to different time zones so they can compete effectively. Doing so can be difficult in traditional high schools that have rules governing what defines an “excused absence.” Missing school for a world fencing competition in Sochi, Russia, might not be covered.
“To do well nationally and internationally, the support has to be on many levels, from schools to parents to coaches,” says Dariusz Gilman, a former national Polish sabre champion who owns Capital Fencing Academy, a private fencing club in North Bethesda, Maryland.
Gilman says there are no sports schools that focus only on fencing and that his students attend public or private high schools. Many have fenced and medaled in international competitions and, after graduating, have gone on to fence for schools such as Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame and the University of Pennsylvania.
Getting to this elite level often meant missing school for as many as 30 days each year. For these students, Gilman advises families to simply ask their school for flexibility. Administrators often understand that a student who is doing well in their chosen sport may need accommodations, he says, whether that’s an extra day to turn in homework or delaying a test until after an international trip.
Gilman also encourages students to master time management, whether that means studying for an exam in the fencing club before a private lesson or knowing how to get acclimated to a time zone before a competition.
“It’s good to be busy, but the key is to be well organized,” Gilman says.
What Does Academic Flexibility Look Like?
Xceed offers students a learning environment built around a student-athlete’s schedule. For example, that might mean a later start time because hockey practice begins at 4:30 a.m. or tennis lessons start at 10 a.m., Norton says.
“There are no school bells, nor set class times,” she says. “Students work alongside certified teachers to get the help and support they need when they need it, and regularly engage in conversations, small group sessions, or schedule a one-on-one lesson or review with their teacher.”
They also have the ability to adjust course loads depending on their strengths and weaknesses, such as taking a math course in the spring because it’s harder for them and they have a light travel schedule, and taking science in the fall because it comes naturally to them and they will have more travel for their sport.
One Mother’s Perspective
Gross, the former college president who sent her child to a ski academy for high school decades ago, says she did not want him to “turn 40 and say, ‘I could have, I should have and I didn’t.'”
“I wanted him to see whether he could and should continue to ski competitively or whether he could in essence ‘ski’ it out of himself,” Gross says.
“The teen years are hard under all circumstances,” she says. “Sports academies offer a lot to students, and what they miss academically, they can backfill if needed. But, you can’t turn 50 and wonder: Could I have been a professional athlete? Could I have been in the Olympics? Could I have been a national champion?”
So, does Gross recommend the sports academy path for all aspiring athletes? No.
“Assess the sports academy, and then think long and hard about the strengths, weaknesses and character of one’s own child,” Gross says. “It’s about finding a fit and match. There’s no general rule.”
The choice “has to be something that the student wants, not the parent,” Gross says. “If a parent pushes children into a sports academy so the child achieves what the parent never could … that’s way too much pressure on the child.”
Gross got a second home near her child’s sports academy, so he could have a place that felt familiar, bring friends over and have home-cooked meals.
Ultimately, her son grew up to become a college professor, but he still has the need for speed. He no longer races on skis, she says. Now he races motorcycles.
Investigating Private High Schools for Sports
Education experts say that families interested in sports academies should start by doing research. Here are several well-known schools:
— Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vermont.
— DME Academy in Daytona Beach, Florida.
— IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
— Oakmoor Hockey Academy in Urbandale, Iowa.
— OTE Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.
— The Ross School Tennis Academy in East Hampton, New York.
— Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio.
Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.
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