Pep rallies, homecoming events, last-second winning shots, bonfires and state championship games – these can embody some of the most fond and exciting memories of high school years. Memories such as these run deep at Bellows Free Academy (BFA) in Fairfax, Vermont. Founded in 1903 as a means of providing a free, quality education to the children of rural farm families, BFA Fairfax possesses a long history of athletic success.
Multiple state championships, numerous league titles and dozens of individual all-league and all-state selections have been the result of driven and talented students, passionate and knowledgeable coaches, and an overwhelmingly supportive community. With individual and team talent often being cyclical, and the knowledge and understanding that not every season will result in a league or state title, the BFA Fairfax school and community have worked diligently to redefine the notion of success as it pertains to the school’s athletic programs.
Athletics and activities at BFA Fairfax are viewed as a core component of the educational program, carrying the same emphasis and value as subjects such as math, science and language arts. In Vermont’s proficiency-based educational environment, BFA’s student-athletes and activity participants develop and practice valuable life skills in leadership, sportsmanship, communication, overcoming adversity, humility, perseverance, group success over individual success and service to others. With recent studies defining leadership, sportsmanship, team community service projects, and participation rates as indicators of success of school athletic programs, BFA has made it a priority to educate and increase student and community buy-in regarding this philosophical approach.
Establishing and fostering this philosophy, however, has not come without its challenges. As with any athletic program, there are parents, coaches and community members whose approach to athletics, specifically dealing with purpose and goals, does not necessarily align with that of the school. Through ongoing dialogue with parents, frequent training, supervision and evaluation of coaches, and regular information sharing through the school district blog, as well as other social media platforms, the understanding and support of the education-based athletics philosophy continues to grow and guides the school’s athletic program.
Consistent sharing of information – both specific from the athletic director and general information from the school – through blogs has been one significant way to regularly connect with all key individuals. Following are links to some recent blogs: The FWSU Story blog.
Most importantly, through school and community support, as well as cooperative agreements with other area schools, the number of athletic offerings continues to increase to ensure that any student who desires can experience the benefits of athletic participation.
BFA Fairfax’s approach of embracing education-based athletics involves leadership, sportsmanship, team community service projects and participation rates.
Every November, BFA Fairfax sends eight student-athletes to the Vermont State Athletic Directors Association Student Leadership Conference. This annual event hosts hundreds of the top student- athlete leaders from all Vermont high schools. Although many schools sponsor fewer students, the Fairfax School Board supports sending eight student-athletes annually to ensure that every athletic program in the school has representation.
During two intensive days of training in leadership, goal-setting and life skills with renowned athletic and motivational speakers from across the country, students gain valuable knowledge and insight to bring back to their school and teams. The leadership skills and commitment to service demonstrated by BFA Fairfax student- athletes in recent years has been a direct result of attending this annual event.
BFA Fairfax takes great pride in the multiple State Sportsmanship Award banners that hang in the gymnasium. Teams, athletes and coaches are often known as humble and compassionate, finding ways to avoid running up a score against a struggling team, or demonstrating respect to officials during a match or game. It is student-athletes who frequently identify inappropriate fan behavior on the sidelines or stands during a game and report the problem to coaches or administrators who then address it.
With an acknowledgement of ongoing room for growth and improvement, BFA Fairfax makes every effort to embody the concept of sportsmanship throughout its athletic community and capitalizes on teachable moments as they occur.
Team Community Service Projects
Service to others is one of the core covenants of the BFA Fairfax athletic program. In any given year, there are multiple athletic events geared toward giving back to individuals, the local community or the greater world. Recent student-driven service initiatives have included the annual Pink Zone cancer fundraising basketball games, Melanoma Society awareness games, Homecoming week events supporting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the American Cancer Society and Hunger Free Vermont, as well as additional local initiatives such as officiating youth sporting events, offering free sport clinics and assisting with upkeep of our school athletic fields.
However, it isn’t only the students who are driving these projects. Usually, there is also overwhelming student, staff and parent involvement. One such example is a softball tournament organized by students and community members to support a fellow student-athlete battling osteosarcoma. More than $10,000 was raised for the family during this single-day event. In a rural Vermont community, this dollar amount was astronomical, but it is just one instance of how the Fairfax community came together to assist one of its own.
For the past five years, annual participation rates in cocurricular activities (including non-athletic activities) at BFA Fairfax have steadily remained at 65-80 percent of the student population. Based upon research which consistently demonstrates the intangible benefits of cocurricular participation, no cuts are made on athletic teams at the school. At times, this necessitates enormous creativity in finding coaches, securing facility space, scheduling games and budgeting, but the positive impact far outweighs any of the challenges.
Empowering student-athletes to be confident, contributing members of society who embrace a “we before me” mentality and learn valuable life skills through athletics is BFA Fairfax’s ultimate definition of success. Examples of these benchmarks, activities and initiatives are included and constantly updated on the BFA Fairfax school blog.
Geri Witalec-Krupa, CAA, is the athletic director/assistant principal at Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, Vermont. In 2014 and 2018, she was named Vermont Small School Athletic Director of the Year, and she is the Vermont liaison to NIAAA Section 1.