Roughly 150 local residents gathered at Park High School to discuss the option of leaving the Suburban East Conference as a way to bolster the school's sports programs - a debate waged inside the walls of Park in 2009.

The "community input night," led by Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel, came as Park staff members have searched for ways to improve the school's level of competition and bolster participation. Kuemmel said there is now a general consensus among coaches the best solution is to leave the big-school-dominated Suburban East Conference, where Park has recently struggled in many sports.

Park has narrowed its focus to three options - first, attempt to join the Classic Suburban Conference; second, form a new conference; or third, to stay the course.

"We have many programs that are very competitive in the Suburban East Conference and it may not be for the best for them that we leave, but our coaches believe it is what is best for Park High School as a whole," Kuemmel said. "They want what's best for Park so this is the direction we're going."

All three District 833 high schools - East Ridge, Park and Woodbury - are in the Suburban East, but Park teams generally have fared worse among conference opponents.

"We feel we have different challenges than the other schools in the district have," Kuemmel said. "We talked about other expanded opportunities that maybe the district could provide us, but this is first and foremost on our mind - will you give us the opportunity to explore?"

The majority of Park varsity coaches, along with District 833 administrators, a few School Board members, student-athletes and numerous parents and residents attended the meeting - which was broken into two parts.

First, Kuemmel and Park coaches and teachers gave a presentation regarding the current situation at Park, revealing data and figures related to athletic participation at Park, in the Cottage Grove Athletic Association and in the Suburban East Conference. In the second part, those in attendance gathered in small groups to discuss the issues facing Park and their feelings on a possible move out of the Suburban East - Park's home the past 10 years. Community members were asked to fill out questionnaires on three topics - what Park coaches and staff has done well, what they can do better and whether the school should pursue another conference. Kuemmel said the results will be collected and published on the school's website this week.

Dan Smoot, a 1994 Park graduate, felt most people were behind leaving the Suburban East.

"The forum was fantastic and getting the thoughts from the community was the right step to take," Smoot said. "Getting the facts out there about the environment we're in was the right thing to do too. Everybody in my group agreed. We have to start winning, whoever the opponent is. Wins will increase school morale, will increase participation, will help build confidence and will increase the whole culture in the community."

Participation falling at Park

At the community input meeting, assistant baseball coach and assistant football coach John McGowan, a Park graduate, said when East Ridge opened its doors three years ago, the main reason was to create more opportunities for students to participate in high school activities.

However, he said the opposite has happened at Park.

The number of unduplicated participants in Park athletics fell from 986 in the 2008-09 school year to 804 last year. Also, he said, in the past three years, 14 squads canceled their seasons because of an inability to field full teams - adding up to 250 canceled games. McGowan added that the decreased participation numbers have forced some Park coaches to move kids up levels before they are ready, which causes frustration and increases the risk of injury.

Participation numbers have not only decreased at Park High School. According to Park assistant soccer coach Stacy Paleen, participation numbers are going down at youth levels in some programs at the Cottage Grove Athletic Association.

For example, Park had nine traveling teams in grades 4-8 in the CGAA boys basketball program. That's compared to 18 traveling teams in grades 4-8 in the East Ridge Athletic Association and 16 traveling teams in grades 4-8 in the Woodbury Athletic Association. Outside the district, for example, the Eden Prairie Athletic Association has 10 traveling boys basketball teams in seventh grade alone.

Socioeconomics a factor

Paleen, also a Park graduate, also presented Park's "unique challenges" stemming from a higher percentage of students from lower-income families. She said socioeconomic demographics play a factor in student-athlete participation.

An identifier used by state agencies to project participation in activities is the percentage of students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch programs at schools. The free and reduced lunch program numbers are used in the Minnesota State High School League's enrollment calculations when assigning schools to different classes. Based on its formula, a student on free or reduced lunch program counts for six-tenths of a student towards that school's enrollment due to the lower amount of recorded participation in activities by those students.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education's Fall of 2010 Minnesota Automated Reporting Student System (MARSS) list, 20.8 percent of Park's 1,806 students are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, compared to 12.7 percent of the 1,807 kids at Woodbury and 9.2 percent of the 1,602 students at East Ridge.

Kuemmel said the demographics between Park and, not only East Ridge and Woodbury but, fellow SEC schools like Mounds View (10.5 percent, 1,744 enrollment), Stillwater (11.7 percent, 2,104 enrollment) are different and may be more similar to schools in the Classic Suburban Conference, for example, like Tartan (31.8 percent, 1,811 enrollment) and North St. Paul (37.7 percent, 1,967 enrollment).

Paleen said fees related to join teams at Park is not the sole issue, but so are additional costs of camps, clinics and off-season club teams. Also, she said many students at Park need to work jobs more than at other SEC schools.

A smaller pool of participants can make it harder to compete against larger schools, Kuemmel said.

Despite the information from Kuemmel and the coaches, Tony Young, a 1991 Park graduate, said he believed most people in the community were against the idea of leaving the Suburban East.

"I think it was good that they opened it up to the community. We'll see how the results turn out," Young said. "There were a lot of facts that I didn't know. It was eye-opening as far as attendance and free-and-reduced lunch information. But, I think we need to stay in the Suburban East Conference. We just have to find a way to do it."

Kevin Tulloch, who has lived in Cottage Grove for 18 years and has two children attending Park who are standout athletes, said what's more important than changing conferences is a changing leadership philosophies.

"I think everyone agreed that a change of culture is needed, but the conference is not the issue, it's more about what's going on inside the building here at Park High School," Tulloch said. "I love Park High School, but we need to do more to retain the kids and keep the kids interested. That starts with coaching."

Tulloch said a good example of what a coach should be is Mark Sikich, Park's longtime gymnastics coach.

"Being a coach is like being a parent," Tulloch said. "If you have coaches or parents that just leave their kids alone it's not going to work. Mark Sikich knows how to motivate and knows how to get the best out of his athletes. I'd love to say that about all the coaches at Park, but I can't."

Roughly three years ago, Park coaches and administrators began internal and external discussions about the possibility of moving Park out of the Suburban East, with the main reasons being a shrinking enrollment and shifting demographics. Kuemmel acknowledged at the time that any decision about a conference change would require District 833 School Board approval and that, so far, discussion mostly has involved school coaches and staff.

Before Park formally decided whether or not to appeal to the school board to change conferences, District 833 superintendent Mark Porter proposed Kuemmel gather information on how the community feels on the matter.

If the School Board approves a petition by Park to leave the Suburban East, it could join the Classic Suburban Conference as soon as the 2013-14 school year.

"One thing that's certain is that people are passionate about athletics," Kuemmel said. "We were very, very happy with the turnout. If we can get feedback from every single person here, that's going to help us a lot as we move forward."