Dec. 15, 2017

By Joe Shearer

Achiever Freelance Writer

While sports provide rich and rewarding experiences for countless student athletes, there’s also risk involved. Injuries are commonplace in sports — from basketball, football, baseball and soccer to gymnastics and cheerleading, among others.

Athletic Trainers at Tech

It’s for this reason that Indianapolis Public Schools has taken the lead the past two decades by providing quality athletic training services through a partnership with Indiana University Health.

The genesis of the partnership goes back to 1990, when Kathy Sparks was hired to provide athletic training services to IPS high school football teams. In the beginning, the partnership was informal.

Sparks would attend games and practices just to check on players who became injured. But the district’s athletic training was apathetic, at best. “Coaches were responsible for handling injuries,” said Sparks. “That is scary, because they usually had little to no training.”

But providing the type of care students needed for teams at eight different high schools each week quickly became too much for Sparks to do alone. So, she arranged for care to be administered by actual athletic trainers and physicians from what was then Methodist Sports Medicine.

For many years, Sparks scrounged and scrapped to solidify the sports medicine presence at IPS schools, getting IU Health to help with necessities like athletic tape, bandages and first-aid kits. Much of that time she also raced from school to school on game nights, struggling to provide a permanent healthcare presence.

In 2007 though, everything changed. Then-superintendent Eugene White allocated funds for all IPS high schools to hire an in-house athletic trainer. Three positions the first year, three the second year, and by 2009 all of the area high schools were staffed with a qualified medical professional, with only a 50 percent teaching commitment.

“It was the turning point, really,” said Sparks. “It allowed them to teach only the second half of the day, then stay after school for games and practices.”

Sparks served as the manager during this time, working with IPS’ Human Resources Department to locate and interview candidates and make hiring decisions. She also was able to get supplies for schools that they otherwise would have to pay for out-of-pocket.

That commitment has continued to grow.

As schools were renovated, athletic training rooms were created, and defibrillators were added throughout the district. There are now 80 defibrillators in IPS schools, the majority donated by IU Health, and that investment has paid off, saving at least three lives, both athlete and non-athlete, in emergency situations, according to Sparks.

While trainers explicitly serve IPS high schools, many middle schools also benefit. The change in culture is obvious, Sparks said. “We went from nobody seeing the value of having trainers at games, to now coaches are panicking if athletic trainers are not available,” she said.

The pact has been key in the district’s overall approach to athlete safety, and was key in what is something of a watershed moment in the partnership between IU Health and IPS.

Northwest High School was awarded the Safe Sports School Award, which is given to schools across the country that put a priority on the safety of its student-athletes through maintaining rigorous medical athletic training standards. Only three other Indianapolis schools have been awarded this honor. Northwest is the only IPS school to receive the award.

“It’s almost unheard of to win this award in an urban school district,” Sparks said. “It really shows the value of the athletic trainers, and what they do for students.”

Northwest Certified Athletic Trainer Susan Stroud says the district’s vision of keeping its student athletes safe paid off in the award, an honor that elevates both the school and the district.

“Not all townships and districts do this for their schools,” said Stroud. “IPS is ahead of the game in this aspect, especially compared to some of the other schools in similar settings.”