Mason program too valuable to lose, school board says

After funding from the Potomac Health Foundation expired, Prince William County budgeted $180,000 to continue a program in which Mason provides athletic trainers to nine county middle schools.

How do you know a community values your involvement? It steps up financially to keep your program running.

That is what happened in Prince William County, Virginia, which this academic year budgeted $180,000 to continue a George Mason University program that provides athletic trainers to nine of the county’s 16 public middle schools with athletic programs.

A three-year grant from the Potomac Health Foundation that once funded the program had ended.

“To have them and potentially lose them, to me, was a nonstarter,” Bill Bixby, associate superintendent of Prince William County Public Schools said of Mason’s trainers. “I’m appreciative the school board supported it and came up with the money. I know they value the work that has been done by the trainers to support our student athletes.”

Bixby said “a priority” for the 2019-20 school year is to expand the program to all 16 schools.

“I was tremendously proud of our team,” said Shane Caswell, founding executive director of Mason’s Sports Medicine Assessment Research and Testing (SMART) Laboratory. “It was very gratifying to see the work we are doing in the community recognized as valuable.”

None of Prince William County’s middle schools had assigned athletic trainers before Mason began its effort.

The provided athletic trainers—graduate students in the Athletic Training Program—are board-certified and state-licensed. They work about 20 hours a week throughout the school year.

The program is the definition of a win-win. The schools get a medical professional on staff who can provide immediate assistance in cases of injury, and the students get real-world training. The athletic trainers also deliver education on health and safety, and run research projects that track injuries such as concussions.  

Because so little is understood about middle school student-athletes, the research is helping to better understand the risk factors for sports injury, including when and how they occur, Caswell said. The university then works with the school system to develop prevention programs that not only can be applied in Prince William County, but also perhaps even nationwide.

“The goal,” Caswell said, “is to ensure the kids can participate in sports in a safe environment, and keep kids in school and participating in physical activity.”

“It’s just a great example of what we conceive a research university to be,” said Mark Ginsberg, dean of Mason’s College of Education and Human Development. “Some research universities are very good at developing best practices. What makes Mason distinct, and is one of our great strengths, is [that] our focus is on making sure best practices become common practices.”

Currently, Caswell has only enough students to cover the nine schools that were included when the program ran under the Potomac Health Foundation grant. If the Prince William school board expands the program to 16 schools, Caswell said he will recruit students nationally.

His pitch?

“Our students engage in research that results in improvements to the practices athletic trainers use to serve the community,” Caswell said. “It really is the model of teaching, research and service.”