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McGair: Public schools gaining on Private School sports rivals

June 6, 2011

Shea High's Freddy Gobewole, center, was one of several public school champions at Saturday's R.I. state championship track and field meet.

Let’s begin with the one thing public and private schools have in common. Both start with the letter “P.”
After that? Let’s just say the hot-button issue regarding the classification of high school athletics in this state wastes no time in drawing battle lines.
For decades the soapbox has been inundated with the same cries and pleas that because private schools are not constrained by the same district boundaries as public schools, the playing field is not equal, so say those trumpeting the importance of equality and fair play. You can almost set your watch by when this argument gets resurrected, prompting public school supporters to decree that the Interscholastic League needs to take some sort of stand – immediately following the culmination of the respective seasons, when Mount St. Charles wins in boys hockey, Bishop Hendricken in football, La Salle Academy in girls basketball or St. Raphael Academy in boys basketball.
All of the above took place during the 2010-11 school year. Sounds like a page out of the same old tired script, right? We watch as private schools gobble up all the trophies, furthering the argument that imperialism, strictly from an athletic standpoint, still reigns supreme.
Yet for the first time in many moons, 2010-11 will be remembered in this corner as the year the tide turned. This was the year public schools fought back, boldly making a market correction on the monopoly that parochial schools have enjoyed a stranglehold on for so long.
The fertile part of the brain started lending serious credence to this notion upon catching wind that Chariho High captured the states in boys outdoor track last weekend. Any track aficionado will tell you that the key to winning the team title is to score well in multiple events. Depth is the decisive factor, hence why teams have always had a hard time unseating Hendricken.
It was a close meet, but the final standings do not lie. Atop stood Chariho, garnering 65 points, Hendricken placing second with 60 points and settling for the bronze was La Salle with 56 points. A public school finishing ahead of not one but two parochial schools? Some may write this off as purely an upset, nothing more than a onetime deal. The thinking here is that the potential for this sequence of events – a parochial school looking on as a public school is crowned champion – unfolding in other sports is more realistic than you think.
Such grounds can be traced to the economic scene in R.I., which in recent years has slowed to a crawl. As much as parochial schools like to sound the gong about being a better alternative to their public school counterparts, they are also something else. Pricey. At a time when layoffs, cutbacks and budgetary concerns have gnawed away at economic stability – according to a piece appearing in April of this year on, Little Rhody ranked seventh out of 50 states in the “worst deficits” category – making tough choices has become the norm. No doubt many families are looking at the tuitions to attend private/parochial schools and are likely coming to the realization that the public school route is more cost effective.
We’ll break down the private schools that are RIIL members into two categories, the Catholic schools – Hendricken, La Salle, St. Raphael, Mount St. Charles, Bay View and Prout – and the private schools – Wheeler, Providence Country Day, Moses Brown and Rocky Hill. Based on the information posted on the school’s websites, the least expensive Catholic option is SRA ($9,900 for the 2010-11). Bay View has set a price of $12,800 for 2011-12 while the cost to attend La Salle in 2010-11 was $12,400. The remaining schools fall between the range of St. Raphael and Bay View; all of them more than $10,000.
It will cost parents $28,385 to have their child attend high school at Moses Brown in 2011-12 with Rocky Hill weighing in at $28,100. Wheeler ($26,265 in 2010-11) and PCD ($27,600 in 2010-11) are not that far off.
Multiply these tuitions over four years and it’s enough to make those controlling the check book think long and hard about making such a financial commitment. With college right around the bend, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many parents favor public schooling for the simple reason that money will be needed to pay for college.
There’s no hard data to show that private schools are suffering from declining enrollments. For the purpose of this argument, the focus is rooted based on what has transpired on the field. We followed as three of the four schools invited to the Final Four in boys basketball were public schools. We watched public schools take home every team and individual honor in boys tennis. We saw the publics taking top honors in the two divisions in girls lacrosse.
We saw in football as two inner-city schools (Tolman, Woonsocket) met in the Division II Super Bowl. Shea and Barrington were finalists in Division I boys soccer. The most competitive season in girls hockey was made possible thanks to the publics challenging longtime stalwarts Bay View and Mount. We saw Cumberland rule the golf scene and senior standout Jamison Randall earn medalist honors. We await the outcome in Division I baseball as North Kingstown and Cranston West vie for supremacy.
The above supports the idea that more and more kids are staying in their hometowns, attending their local high school. By doing so, they are able to be competitive with the private schools, whose ability to draw from all over the state has no doubt been influenced by this economic swoon. What we saw in 2010-11 was that the gulf between publics vs. privates is no longer as wide as it once was.
From this perspective, it’s a welcome change of pace.

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