The FSK Dance Company with instructor (back, left to right) Shellie Rosso, Ashley Wilfong, Carly Weetman, Jordan Gosselin, (front, left to right) Conner Rhoten, Kayla Wintsch, Leslie Cruz.

Written By Donna Engle

It is widely believed that if Jane Doe and John Doe have identical grade point averages and test scores – Jane was on the yearbook staff but John had no extracurricular activities – Jane will get the “yes” letter.

But extracurricular activities can do more for students than pave the path to their chosen colleges or boost their chances for a job. Students who participate in co-curricular activities like French Club, which is directly tied to an academic subject, or extracurricular activities like speech and debate, not tied to a specific subject, are likely to get more out of their high school experience.

Steve Johnson, Carroll County Public Schools assistant superintendent of instruction, lists potential gains from activities beyond the classroom: time management skills, as students balance schoolwork and play rehearsals or sports; collaborative problem solving, as they figure out how to choreograph a dance; finding their passions; earning a higher grade point average, or, for some, a reason to stay in school.

“There are some kids you want to save, to give that shot to. They’re not getting their homework done, they don’t like school, but they do want to be noticed,” said Alyce Edwards, general music and chorus teacher and co-director with vocal music teacher Chrissee Harrison of the annual musical at West Middle School, Westminster. Getting on stage or painting scenery can tip the balance against dropping out.

Don’t forget about the other end of the spectrum, said Rose Young, physics teacher and advisor to Robo-Lions, the Liberty High School robotics team. The “other end” are students who stay in school, but are bored with class material and looking for something to challenge their minds.

Building a robot to perform a specific task, said Young, “is much different from what we do in the classroom. Much as we try to give kids projects in the classroom that are real, nothing is as successful as this.”

Learning how to present themselves to an audience is also important, said Shellie Rosso, dance teacher and advisor to the Francis Scott Key High School dance company.

“When they have performed on stage, they feel more comfortable doing a presentation in English class,” she said. Most extracurricular activities in Carroll public schools are at the high school level because of transportation. But where transportation dilemmas can be solved, younger children can benefit. “Children who start in activities in sixth grade get the bug and go right on through high school,” said Edwards.

Academic success is often associated with extracurricular activities. A National Center for Education Statistics study found that public high school seniors involved in extracurricular activities were less likely than non-participants to skip classes, more likely to have a 3.0 or higher GPA, more likely to score in the top one-fourth on math and reading tests and are more likely to expect to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Grades stay up or climb because students learn early that, “I was busy with play practice, so I didn’t have time to do my homework” is not an excuse. At West Middle, Edwards explains to other teachers that during rehearsals, when students not involved in a scene, they are expected to work on their homework.

The business community tells school officials, “We need people who can solve problems creatively,” said Assistant Superintendent Johnson.

And creative thinking is a must in many extracurricular activities. In Young’s classroom after hours, bright young minds huddle to work on challenges such as building a team of robots that can hang more inflated tubes on scoring grids than other schools’ teams. Annual challenges and competition come through the national organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST).

The team is not just for the next generation of engineers, said Preston Fuller, 17, of Eldersburg, team president. “If you want to be a businessman, join and be on the public relations team. If you want to be in computers, be on the programming team,” he said. For future engineers like Fuller, tackling problems such as whether to support a robotic arm with a brace or a cable is what he wants to do with his life.

Tom Milnes, Eldersburg, a mathematician at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, is a Robo-Lions mentor. His high school did not have robotics, but he learned to work with others on the chess team. Now, he helps his son, Tommy, gain similar experiences.

“It’s an engineering experience, but it’s also a total life experience,” said Milnes. “They raise money, do outreach, publicize, learn wiring, program computers, and learn how to make decisions and compromise.”

Some colleges have turned to a holistic admissions process. At McDaniel College, Westminster, the staff looks at GPA, the rigor of academic schedules and activities that show how students spent their high school time. The definition of activities includes part-time jobs.

“It’s knowing that a student has done more than go home in the afternoon and play video games,” said Florence W. Hines, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions.

“Some have been working, perhaps contributing to their families. That’s as important to us as being in clubs and activities.” McDaniel’s selection process goes beyond the list of extracurricular activities to look at students’ commitment.

“Joining is not the same as making a contribution. It’s not about volume, it’s about commitment,” said Hines.

Availability of activities may be a factor in a student’s college choice. FSK Dance Company senior Carly Weetman, 17, of Westminster, used her design skills to create the company t-shirt. This year, she will look for a college or university where she can study interior design and continue her passion for dance.

Carroll Community College, Westminster, strongly encourages students to participate in campus activities to help them build a connection to the college, said Michael Kiphart, dean of student affairs. The college has an open enrollment policy, but students who seek admission to the Hill Scholars honors program are asked for examples of high school leadership and extracurricular activities.