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Extra benefits: the value of extracurricular activities

By Marissa Orbanek, administrative assistant/public relations manager for General McLane SD (Erie Co.).

As schools focus more on developing both career- and college-bound students, extracurricular activities can play a significant role.

Almost every high school offers some type of extracurricular activity – whether they include honor societies, government, sports, music or academic clubs. Many schools offer a variety of different channels to engage all types of students.

In general, extracurricular activities are defined as those sponsored by the school district that allow students to represent their school in events that extend beyond the school day. These activities provide a channel for students of all backgrounds to apply lessons learned in the classroom to a real-world context.

Outside of applying classroom knowledge, students who participate in extracurricular activities learn a variety of skills beneficial beyond the school’s walls.

Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA) President and Strath Haven Middle School music teacher Henry Pearlberg has been involved with music since he was a young child and personally experienced the social benefits of extracurriculars.

“Growing up, I was an extremely shy child, but music gave me my outlet to express myself,” Pearlberg said. “Every student or child needs to find something they clinch to or a way to express themselves; music was that for me.”

Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Executive Director Dr. Robert A. Lombardi emphasized students involved in educational-based athletics learn skills and characteristics that make them better and more productive citizens of society.

“Teamwork, dedication, discipline, cooperation, goal setting, working through adversity – those types of things are life lessons that you learn through educational-based athletics,” Lombardi said. “Educational-based athletics are an important part of school day. They are not the most important part of the day, but they are an important part to supplement the school day. There’s a lesson to every contest – win, lose or draw. It’s these important lessons that help people in classrooms and throughout life.”

Lombardi added that extracurriculars are also a great lab for leadership: “Kids involved in athletics have to learn to adhere to rules, follow policies, and the leadership concepts of overcoming adversity when things may go against them. Students learn to work within a controlled environment or when things occur outside of their control. They are working toward the team goal and pushing each other to be the best they can be.”

These life lessons can give students an extra advantage and help with college and career readiness because employers and colleges are looking for candidates with relevant experience when making selection decisions.

“Co-curricular involvement can be a way for students to differentiate themselves from their peers. Additionally, the depth of one’s participation can also demonstrate persistence, dedication, commitment, etc., which colleges tend to value,” said Messiah College’s Associate Director of Admissions Matt Reitnour. “I would also add that participation in co-curricular activities can help students develop the kinds of skills, such as time management, that are needed to be successful at the college level.”

Andrea Konkol, the associate director of Admissions for Penn State Behrend, the Erie College, agreed.

“The benefit for students to be involved with high school extracurriculars is that it certainly helps them to become a well-rounded student. It also gives them experience being able to work and collaborate with a group, and students are able to bring in their diverse backgrounds and experiences to classroom conversations, which is beneficial at the college level,” Konkol said.

According to a 2016 LinkedIn survey of nearly 300 hiring managers in the U.S., communication skills, organization, teamwork, punctuality and critical thinking are the top five soft skills that employers are seeking from future employees.

Forbes also reported just this January that leadership, communication, collaboration, attention, agility and humility were the top soft skills sought from entry-level job seekers among 100 top human resources managers, recruiters and CEOs.

“Colleges and employers are looking for leaders and individuals with creativity, students who can think outside of the box,” Pearlberg said. “A former student of mine is involved in the School of Engineering at Stanford University and the way they work, they collaborate and work in groups on projects. Each individual brings in his or her expertise and they work together toward a goal. My student had experience with this because of his high school involvement with music – and music encourages that process of working together.”

Participating in extracurricular activities also exposes students to a college setting. For example, in Northwestern Pennsylvania, all five of the local colleges host a variety of events that bring in participants from student organizations.

Whether it’s the Battle of the Books Competition at Gannon University, the Tech Challenge at Edinboro University, the PJAS Competition at Penn State Behrend, the Erie College, the Model UN competition at Mercyhurst University or the High School Band Festival at Allegheny College, students receive the opportunity to gain a unique perspective of a college or university setting by attending competitions that take place on their campus.  In addition, many of these competitions provide the winning students with scholarships or grants.

Studies have linked student involvement in extracurricular activities to student engagement and academic success. Research conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that participation in extracurricular activities has a positive correlation with student attendance, grade point average, test scores and educational goals.

These study results are no surprise, considering the eligibility policies in place for student participation in extracurriculars. Simply put, students need to be in school and engaged in learning to participate in the extracurriculars. This engagement carries over to the college level.

“A lot of students do continue in college what they were involved in at the high school level,” Konkol said. “Anything we can do to keep them connected in college is going to help with success and retention at the university level.”

Reitnour agreed and added that colleges and universities are looking for students who are able to benefit from and contribute to their campus communities.

Lombardi added that these students benefit the local communities as well because they offer a source of local pride.

“Educational-based athletics are a vital piece of the school population and the school day because they really assist in establishing community involvement. With recreational or Amateur Athletic Union programs, you don’t see those teams come home riding on the fire trucks,” Lombardi said. “But when you have a winning football or basketball team in your community, you see them riding a fire truck through town. Nothing generates more pride in community faster than a winning sports or academic team.”  B

Top five reasons extracurriculars are important

  1. Keep students engaged, which helps student success and school retention
  2. Provide opportunities for students to practice and serve as student leaders
  3. Provide opportunities for students to develop skills, competencies and characteristics in ways that the traditional classroom setting may not
  4. Generate a source of both school and community pride
  5. Get students on college campuses or in the local workforce

After-school program fosters students’ holistic wellness

At George Ross Elementary School in the SD of Lancaster, the Girls on the Run program offers students an opportunity to make strides in fitness, as well as other wellness goals. The after-school program meets twice a week for 12 weeks in the fall and spring to prepare for an end-of-season 5K race. Along with running and related activities, coaches mentor the girls and discuss values such as responsibility, kindness and empowerment. At the final 5K, each girl also has a running partner, at least 16 years old, to encourage her along the way.

School counselor and 2016 Girls on the Run coach Brandais Gary says Ross Elementary started the program modeled on several other successful ones in the district: “We were impressed with the idea of promoting holistic wellness including nutrition, self-esteem and positive social-emotional skills, and knew that it could really enrich the lives of our students.”

Part of the program’s appeal is that it is open to everyone, regardless of financial ability. Participants are asked to contribute based on their family’s income. The rest of the funding comes from community donations. In turn, the girls choose community service projects to complete during the season such as making handkerchiefs for service dogs and cards for children at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and providing public service at school events.

While the fitness benefits of the program are obvious, Gary says some of the most significant gains are made in increased self-esteem, as students complete a race that looked impossible to them at the start of the season. Coaches have also seen improvement in participants’ social skills as they learn to work together as a team, make leadership decisions, and practice encouragement and empathy for each other.

For more on the Girls on the Run program at Ross Elementary, contact Brandais Gary at See this program and other success stories featured on