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Head of Alaska school activities retires after 20 years helping kids

Jennifer GibbinsThe Cordova Times

In addition to welcoming more 500 high school students this past weekend, Cordova hosted the spring meeting of the board of directors of the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA).

ASAA is a statewide nonprofit organization established to direct, develop and support Alaska's high school interscholastic sports, academic and fine arts activities. For the past 20 years, the association has been led by executive director Gary Matthews, who announced his resignation, effective next year. Looking back over his career, Matthews has been part of ASAA's phenomenal growth.

"We've worked hard to gain the trust of schools, build our programs," said Matthews. "And it's gratifying that we are still in business."

The ASAA portfolio is impressive. It sanctions 33 activities ranging from fall, winter and spring sports, to music, art, drama, debate, language and student government. ASAA sets competitive seasons, sponsors state competitions, regulates and trains sports officials and provides eligibility criteria for students.

ASAA was formed in 1956 by a small committee of superintendents concerned that some schools had adults participating in student athletics. Shortly after statehood, Alaska took it over and put ASAA within the State Department of Education. However, in the mid-1980's the Legislature decided to stop funding ASAA, which at the time had just two employees.

"The board had to decide, become self funding or fold," said Matthews. "So they formed a 501c(3)."

Today, ASAA supports a staff of eight and is funded through school dues based on enrollment, corporate sponsors including First National Bank of Alaska and income from rule books, state tournaments, licensing and grants.

A former music teacher, high school principal and athletic director, Matthews joined the organization in 1993. Asked what he is most proud of, Matthews says that it is the opportunity provided to students.

"Student activities provide opportunities for kids to gain experience and develop a decision-making process while they are still in school -- so when they are adults, they've decreased risky behavior."

To that end, ASAA put everything on the line five years ago, even mortgaging its building, to establish its Play for Keeps program, a statewide Tobacco, Alcohol and Controlled Substance prevention program focused on students participating in high school interscholastic activities. The zero tolerance program is designed to reinforce good decisions and a healthy lifestyle for young people by imposing sanctions on those who do not follow the rules. It applies to all ASAA-sanctioned activities from sports to arts to government.

"Every kid who wants to participate in ASAA has to comply," said Matthews. "Alaska leads the nation in substance-abuse issues. Especially in rural Alaska, life is challenging. There are issues with depression, tobacco, etc. The board decided to really do something."

Play for Keeps incorporates students, parents, teachers and coaches. Although the program has strict eligibility standards and guidelines that underscore the serious consequences for making poor decisions, it is largely based in positive reinforcement and offers offenders an opportunity to become educated. After a first offense, a student is suspended for 10 days, which can be reduced to five by taking online training. After a second offense, there is a mandatory 45-day suspension and online education is required. With a third offense, a student is suspended from all ASAA activities for one year and must go before the school board to appeal for reinstatement. With a forth violation, a student is out for the rest of their high school career. All violations are reported to a private electronic database accessible only to the principal and ASAA, but the data follows the student if he or she changes schools.

"We've had under 500 reported first offenses," said Matthews. "Of those, there were 12 second offenses and 3 third offenses. The activities are something the students don't want to lose, especially if they want to compete in sports at the state level. We had one kid who had three offenses, but he worked his way through it, got himself straightened out and was reinstated."

Another benefit to the program: consistency.

"School policies vary across the state. A school can still have a stricter policy that ASAA, but Play for Keeps creates a level playing field through ASAA and makes consistent educational resources available to parents, teachers and students."

Matthews sees today's kids as less mature, but living in a world that requires more self direction.

"There is a higher expectation to make decisions and take responsibility and they are faced with a lot of opportunities, including unhealthy ones. Internet and technology are also huge influences that are a real challenge for school districts," said Matthews.

"ASAA is an organization looking out for students in cooperation with school districts to make sure kids have healthy activities and learn decision-making abilities."

Retirement is a year away, but Matthews and his wife are looking forward to spending more time traveling the state and enjoying the outdoors.

"We've got a great staff and I've got the best job in the state, but you know when it's time for a change."

The preceding article originally appeared in The Cordova Times, and is reprinted here with permission. You can reach Cordova Times Staff with comments and suggestions at cdvtimes(at)thecordovatimes.com