Elementary and high school officials in Proviso Township are seriously considering the creation of a middle school sports program that would allow fifth- through eighth-grade students from all of D209’s feeder schools the opportunity to compete against one another.

Organizers of the proposed program argue that the initiative will help retain some of the droves of students who go to high schools other than the ones in Proviso Township High Schools District 209 after they leave the elementary school level. They also argue that the program will help D209 compete with other high school districts that already have similar middle school sports programs.

Bellwood School District 88 Supt. Mark Holder called a meeting on Feb. 21 at Roosevelt Middle School, 2500 Oak St. in Bellwood, to discuss the proposal. Roughly two dozen local school officials and elected leaders, including the mayors of Bellwood and Broadview, attended the meeting, with most of those in attendance expressing their support for the idea.

“When our kids leave elementary school, they’re going to schools outside of Proviso Township and that’s something that we’re really trying to harness,” Holder said.

Holder added that he and District 88 Board President Sondra McClendon initiated talks with Calvin Davis, the athletic director at Proviso West High School, about the creation of the program. Holder said it’s been more than a decade since D88 schools competed in an athletic conference.

Many D209 feeder districts — such as Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview District 89, Lindop School District 92 and Forest Park School District 91 — already compete in sports leagues.

For instance, Forest Park schools and Lindop (a single-school district), compete against each other in the Salt Creek Valley Conference while District 89 competes in the Illinois Elementary School Association. Currently, however, not all D209 feeder schools compete with one another in one unified feeder program, which is what Davis is proposing.

During the Feb. 21 meeting, Roger Nickles, a Lindop PE teacher and coach, said that even though his school competes in the SCVC in a variety of sports, including basketball, soccer and cross-country, there’s room to accommodate D209’s proposed middle school sports program.

“Let’s build a bridge with the SCVC,” Nickles said, explaining that the current conference could possibly “mesh” with D209’s proposed program by consolidating in a variety of ways.

Edward Brophy, the assistant superintendent for operations with Forest Park D91, said that the Feb. 21 conversation “was a great first start” and “we’re with you.”

Davis said that the proposed middle school league could include a range of indoor and outdoor sports, including basketball, flag football, boys and girls swimming, softball, track, soccer and even golf.

The league, he added, would be divided into two levels — a junior varsity level comprising fifth- and sixth-graders and a varsity level comprising seventh- and eighth-graders.

The program’s playoff format and regulatory rules would mirror those of the Illinois High School Association. Coaches in the proposed program would be required to undergo training and certification. Each school would appoint an athletic director to handle compliance and other ongoing issues.

“The only expense that a school would incur is the cost of buses to and from games and officials’ fees that it would pay if it’s the home team,” Davis said. A limited liability corporation, along with an outside consultant, would oversee officials’ assignments, coach certification and training, awards and other administrative matters.

Davis said that he wrote the middle school sports program for the Chicago Public Schools system. That program served about 400 schools and existed for around 12 years before CPS officials cut it out of the budget, Davis said.

“This is my sixth year as athletic director at Proviso West and for the past few years, it’s really sunk in that we are missing a feeder program, where kids come to us at the high school level with experience in interscholastic sports and fundamental skills and training,” Davis said.

A unified feeder program would give D209 high schools a talent pipeline that already exists at competitor districts, he explained.

“We’re competing against the Hinsdale Centrals, the Lyons Townships, the Willowbrooks — all those schools have feeder programs and you can really see the difference,” Davis said. “[A program of our own] would give us something to help develop our young people: Not just in sports but in life.”

Davis explained that he and his team planned on administering a survey to all feeder schools in order to get a sense of which schools might compete in which sports, where those sports might be fielded and other logistical issues.

Once officials gather that information, they’ll have a material basis for creating the league. Davis said that, if all goes according to plan, the new feeder sports program could debut next school year. Davis said that officials at Proviso East and Proviso West are already on board, and that all playoff and championship games for the proposed program would be played on a D209 high school campus.

Officials in District 209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez’s office, however, said that the idea has yet to be presented to the administration or the board. So far, they added, talks about the proposed program have been informal.

McClendon said that the program would help provide “not just top athletes, but every child” with exposure to fundamentals in sports before they enroll in D209.

For Johnny Nolan-Jenkins, who won the 1988 state title in the long jump and currently coaches track and field at Proviso West, the feeder program is an idea that’s long-overdue.

“It’s so important that we do this,” said Nolan-Jenkins, who collaborated with McClendon, Holder and Davis to help launch discussions about the proposed program. Nolan-Jenkins also coached track and field for nine years at Proviso East.

He said that he’s tired of fielding the same question from his colleagues in other areas across the state: Given the magnitude of the area’s talent pool, why isn’t Proviso consistently winning state titles in a range of sports — not just basketball and football.

“The whole idea is for us to have developed and trained kids so that they’re successful when they get to high school,” McClendon said. “And the best prize is that they possibly end up with college scholarships.”

Davis said that student-athletes would also benefit by gaining critical life skills. He said that research shows that students involved in sports earn better grades, have fewer disciplinary issues and attend school more frequently, among other benefits.

“That same discipline and repetition that raises test scores is practiced in sports every day,” Davis said.