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St. James' athletic program aims to LEAP the rest

Four-year program intended to help develop high-level athletes and sports leadership

The timing has been awful, but St. James Catholic High School has managed to get a new four-year program, LEAP, aimed at high-level athletes and sports leadership.

The LEAP program is Leaders in Exercise and Athletics Program.

“We started it as a sport leadership initiative, basically a career pathways initiative where we had a credit package constructed that was really sport, athletics, fitness, recreation and business focused, whether they were doing a co-op in Grade 11 plus a religion course that was tied in that was focused on character development,” program teacher Jeff Cummings said. “In Grade 12 they were going to have a sport leadership course and then a couple of connected courses in kinesiology and recreation.”

Like almost everything, it has been impacted by the pandemic.

“We had that package started a year and a half ago and we had registrations, but some of the ability to carry through the program has been difficult because it was predicated on some co-op experiences and one of the featured co-ops was they'd go into elementary schools and they’d basically be the phys ed teachers,” Jeff Cummings said. "Because of COVID, we weren't able to really activate that.

"What we we've been able to do is get them into some summer program initiatives. So we have a paid co-op where they do that co-op and they get paid and they run camps. They've done that in the on-site sports program.”

Cummings is quick to credit St. James principal Sandra Cummings (no relation) for getting the program up and running.

“She was the administrator who was in charge of it (when she was the vice-principal at the school) and she's carried it all the way through the program teams that need to support it with the superintendents that need to support it,” Jeff Cummings said.

“She's done all of that work. It's not easy to get an initiative like this up and running. She also guides the program to make sure that strategically it's being promoted in a way that supports the school goals. She's the boss on all of that. Ultimately she is the one that drives the program.”

The program started during the 2020-2021 school year with the senior part, grades 11 and 12, the sports leadership portion. The high-level athletics part started this year with around 50 students enrolled in Grade 9 and it’s about a 50/50 mix between boys and girls.

“That was exactly what we were looking for with LEAP,” Jeff Cummings said. “When we did the first presentation, we were focused on this idea of equity. We sort of have a couple of pillars and equity and service and obviously faith and character were things that we wanted, but equity was the driving force. We wanted it understood that we didn't care too much that someone was the best at something, we wanted people who were driven and we were cognizant that we wanted opportunities for female athletes to be front and centre, too.”

The senior part of the program, grades 11 and 12, is modelled after a similar one in London, Ont., that’s popular and also called LEAP.

“They had showed us some of the things that they were doing and it was the co-op experience,” Jeff Cummings said. “The kids were getting all of the certifications. They were getting certifications in refereeing, coaching – all of these things that had value for the recreation, fitness, athletics area.”

After seeing that, the next idea was to come up with a junior part that would flow nicely into the senior end of the program

“That's where we came back to Grade 9 and 10 and through various data collections we saw that there were a lot of parents who were interested in seeing the phys-ed courses being utilized as performance training – cross fit, high performance training,” Jeff Cummings said.

That part led to a partnership with Lift Fitness and Performance and co-owner Trevor Cottrell.

“He came in and said we can take these kids and meet your curriculum and we can develop curriculum that is focused on building their athletic performance, building their strength, building their speed, agility, and at the same time doing character work with the kids,” Jeff Cummings said.

“One thing we know about young athletes, the best athletes often do need some character development so we do that work and we also do work around sports psychology with them so they're linked in to various expertise that comes and does guest speaking sessions with them.”

For the youngsters enrolling in the program, their sport of interest or athletic pursuit isn’t a consideration.

“If they're a lacrosse player, if they're a dancer, if they're a golfer, it didn't matter to us what their sport was,” Jeff Cummings said. “We wanted to develop them physically to succeed as best they can in those courses. When we met with the parents, that was what they would basically say. It allowed us to construct the course in a way that met what parents were looking for for their kids in these physical education courses. They're getting a credit, but they're also motivated to make themselves better in a lot of different ways.”

St. James isn’t looking at attracting students strictly from the Wellington Catholic District School Board.

“It's a program that anyone can come to, whether you are from Upper Grand (District School Board) or from the Christian school community or Wellington Catholic,” Jeff Cummings said. “We have open doors to people who might be interested in this program.”

Getting elite athletes into the school can certainly make the school’s varsity teams stronger, should they decide to play varsity sports, but that’s just a by-product of the course and not its aim.

“This is certainly a possible outcome, but it's not where I started,” Jeff Cummings said. “We started with the idea that we wanted to build a pathways program where people will have opportunities in a variety of careers because the number of kids who will go on and actually play a professional sport is quite limited. At the same time, we certainly see there will be a positive outcome for the teams from the athletes who play at St. James. We are a school that really supports and promotes our teams.

“Ultimately for us, the program is about the job in the end or the area that the kid is going to work in for their lives. Whether it's athletics, recreation, fitness – there are all kinds of ways this should work. It's when passion meets their job. That's what we want them to kind of come out with in this program.”