Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series of articles on the affiliate members of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Affiliate members have the right to participate in meetings and activities but without voting privileges or eligibility for elected or appointed offices or assignments.
Location: Bloomington, IL
The Illinois Elementary School Association (IESA) has been the leading middle school organization in the country since it was founded in 1929. The association provides its 989 member schools with guidelines and state series for its activities.
“It’s a very unique opportunity for students in Illinois that very few states provide,” IESA Executive Director Steve Endsley said. “We are by far the most actively involved in providing state competition for middle schools in the country.”
The IESA had humble beginnings. There were no junior high schools when the association was founded in the 1920s. At that time, elementary schools served children in kindergarten through first grade, which is why the IESA includes ‘elementary’ in its name. Despite that, the association has continued to grow steadily since its founding.
The IESA’s membership reached 100 schools in 1946. When Endsley joined the IESA in 1988, there were about 550 member schools. Now, there are nearly 1,000 members. Endsley said the association has grown considerably in the past 30 years.
“I would like to think the reason we’ve seen this growth is because of the activities we offer, because of how those activities are done, and because of how we run them,” Endsley said.
Endsley believes the IESA’s track and field meet is a large reason many schools initially get involved with the IESA. Once they become members, schools realize how much more the association has to offer. With about 575 schools competing in the series this year, track and field is by far the most popular activity offered by the IESA. It is closely followed by both boys and girls basketball, with about 450 schools participating in each of those series.
The IESA most recently added bowling, golf and chess to its list of activities. In its first year, 40 member schools participated in golf. Now, golf has gained popularity with more than 100 schools. Bowling has seen an increase from five schools to more than 200, and about 750 students participate in chess.
“I thought that they would be successful, but they were more successful than I imagined,” Endsley said. “They’ve grown like crazy.”
The IESA does not currently sanction a soccer series because many middle schoolers play at the club level, rather than on school teams, but Endsley said a soccer series could be in the IESA’s future. It is considered an emerging sport, and an IESA committee is keeping tabs on school interest. Endsley said that, rather than providing a soccer series without knowing how many schools will play, the IESA would rather wait for schools to approach and ask for a soccer series. The IESA is taking the same approach with boys volleyball.
Some of the IESA’s challenges are unique to the association because of the fact it works exclusively with middle schoolers. Endsley said that one of the most difficult situations the IESA handles is unsportsmanlike conduct. For many students, middle school is their first time playing on a school sports team. In addition, many coaches and referees first start their careers by working with middle school students before moving up to the high school and college levels. When pairing young players, parents new to the sport, first or second-time coaches and newer, inexperienced referees, Endsley said, it creates perfect conditions for problems to arise.
“You throw all those people together and expect them to work it out,” Endsley said. “You’re going to have a little bit of difficulty. It definitely can work, and most of the time it does. But when those things come together, it can be challenging.”
Endsley said he believes kids at the middle school level have a more difficult time with issues like sportsmanship due to their age and maturity level. IESA policy states that players ejected from games for engaging in unsportsmanlike behavior must sit out the next game. Coaches ejected from games for unsportsmanlike behavior must sit out two games.
Another difference between the IESA and high school associations can be seen in the IESA’s speech competition. Endsley said it is different from a lot of high school speech and debate competitions because it is less competitive. Students can recite solos, duets and improvisations, among other forms of speech. The speech competition and another event – Scholastic Bowl – are two of the IESA’s most popular non-sports activities.
Endsley said that Scholastic Bowl is another chance for students not in athletics to compete in a state series. Nearly 400 schools participate in the Scholastic Bowl each year. Two teams of five students compete against each other in a jeopardy-style competition that takes place from winter to spring. By the first week of May, 16 teams will advance to the finals.
Endsley said the IESA works with the Illinois High School Association and tries to prepare students for high school. The IESA wants to expand to provide more activities for schools and students, and the association’s first priority is to offer activities that are conducted in a safe and professional manner.
“We do things the right way and we try to do what’s best for our schools,” Endsley said. “We keep students at the center of our decision-making. Our goal is that we can continue to do these things for students and they become well-rounded and prepared to move on to the high school level.”
Kirsten Adair is an intern in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department and a student at Butler University.