Nothing could have prepared East Baton Rouge Parish school system Superintendent John Dilworth for what he experienced not long after moving to Baton Rouge.

Dilworth’s voice changes and his face tenses up even now, about two years later.

“I remember going out to McKinley High and finding out there was no hot water,” Dilworth said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I never saw that in Caddo Parish or in (Montgomery) Alabama.

“The kids couldn’t shower and you couldn’t wash uniforms. We rectified that and will continue upgrading facilities because it is important.”

That situation is a stark contrast to the upgrades made in facilities in East Baton Rouge Parish during the past 18 months.

Broadmoor High has a renovated athletic complex with an all-weather track that will be unveiled this month. Track facilities at Woodlawn High, Scotlandville High and Northeast High were resurfaced. The ongoing renovation at Baton Rouge High will include an all-weather track.

These projects come on the heels of projects to rework the gyms at Istrouma, McKinley, Belaire, Tara and Glen Oaks in recent years.

Dilworth and Ken Jenkins, the school system’s director of activities, know facilities are only a small part of the challenges ahead.

Rising academic standards and academic accountability are issues for East Baton Rouge Parish, just as they are for other school systems nationwide.

Budget cuts, coaching shortages and, in some cases, decreases in participation, are other issues facing athletic programs.

Rather than getting bogged down by what schools don’t have, Dilworth and Jenkins are focused on making sure the school system takes the small steps it can to keep schools in the game literally and figuratively.

“We have to keep chipping away,” Dilworth said. “A little bit at a time.”

Experience to build on

When it comes to athletics, Dilworth is no novice. He attended Pine Bluff High in Pine Bluff, Ark., and played football at Northwestern State.

Dilworth moved through the ranks as a coach, then served as principal at two Shreveport schools, Southwood and Fair Park. He also was a member of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s executive committee. Before coming to Baton Rouge, he was a school superintendent in Montgomery, Ala.

“We’ve done some good things since I’ve been here, but I know there were also good things done before I came,” Dilworth said. “We ended up getting school construction bond money at the right time. It’s allowed us to upgrade some of our schools and our athletic facilities.

“Research shows that when students are involved in clubs, organizations and sports, their attendance is better and their grades tend to be better.

“I believe in athletics. Being a former athlete, I’m a living testimony. For a long time, I went to school just to play sports. The truth is, the camaraderie, the teamwork and self-discipline translates into other parts of life.”

Dilworth, who is scheduled to retire during the summer of 2012, credits Jenkins, a former middle-school physical education instructor who has supervised East Baton Rouge Parish athletics since 1996. “He (Jenkins) points out when we things need to be done and we need that,” Dilworth said. “A (school) system has to have someone who does that.”

Last week, Jenkins asked schools to submit a list of problems they have at their athletic facilities. That list, and some photo documentation, will be turned over to those who address facility problems.

Despite the objections of critics, the school system instituted a 2.0 grade-point average requirement for students involved in extra-curricular activities in 2008-09. The system, phased in through a progression, actually put the school system ahead of the game in terms of academic requirements.

“It wasn’t easy, but we did that right,” Jenkins said. “I also think our coaches do a very good job of monitoring the grades of their players from week to week or more often if they need to.”

Much more to do

Other challenges are looming. Coaching shortages is one key issue. Student apathy is another.

The issue with coaches is a quandary. The days of hiring extra physical education coaches are gone.

Coaches must be hired to fit open teaching positions. With budget-related staff layoffs and moves to shift out-of-work teachers to places where jobs are open, it is getting harder and harder for public systems such as East Baton Rouge Parish to add new coaches.

East Baton Rouge Parish schools can fill the void by adding coaches who teach at either the elementary- or middle-school level. Certified non-faculty assistants can be hired, but there are limits per sport.

“The situation with coaches is a challenge everywhere except the independent school districts,” Dilworth said. “I can use some of the districts in Texas. They can make filling a coaching position a priority and a lot of school districts can’t.

“Booster clubs can help. But there are differences when you’re at a school that has support and one that doesn’t. When I was at Southwood, we had a large PTA and some coaches were paid by the PTA. At Fair Park, we didn’t have that and we had to make do with the bare minimum.

“In Louisiana, we still have a ways to go to address these issues with our coaches.”

Changing times, mind-sets

In the meantime, the school system is filling open coaching spots with elementary-middle school personnel and non-faculty coaches, Jenkins said.

Student apathy is a tougher issue to tackle. A lack of parental and community support have long been recognized as problems for school systems such as East Baton Rouge Parish. Student apathy takes those issues to a new level, Jenkins said.

“We have so many kids who say they want to participate in athletics and our other activities,” Jenkins said. “But then they don’t do what they need to do to be part of the program, whether its attending a club meeting or doing conditioning or weightlifting with a team.

“Our coaches go out of their way to arrange classes and tutors for them. It’s all there for them. We need to find a way to get them to understand that this will make them a better person and prepare them for life.”

Lack of staffing can be crucial in other ways. Schools in the surrounding area have athletic trainers on staff. So do East Baton Rouge Parish’s top two independent school systems, Central and Zachary.

Broadmoor High’s Tim Gonda is the lone athletic trainer on staff. The other nine parish public schools rely on certified first aid coordinators, volunteer team physicians and help from physical therapy groups.

Still chipping away

Filling the personnel voids is only part of the big picture for East Baton Rouge Parish’s future. Jenkins hopes continued improvement of facilities can foster more community and parental support.

“BREC is very good to us and their two (football) stadiums are a big part of what we do,” Jenkins said. “But if we could bring some of these games back to the communities, hopefully there will be more interest and involvement.”

Dilworth said he would like to see the patterns of the middle and high schools stabilize, allowing schools to install systems and fundamentals that can be carried through high school.

More than wins

East Baton Rouge Parish schools’ success in basketball is something Dilworth notes, pointing out that Scotlandville has been in the finals. The superintendent added he tried to entice Glen Oaks boys coach Harvey Adger, a Shreveport native, to return home to coach.

But Dilworth said there has to be more than wins and losses. Or nice facilities to show off.

“I want these programs to build pride and character for the young men and women participating,” Dilworth said. “I also want our players and coaches to display the ultimate in sportsmanship.

“It has to be about more than wins and losses.”