05/13/2015 01:47 pm ET Updated May 13, 2016

The Case for Sports as a Key Driver for Academic Success

Summer is quickly approaching, which means one thing for high school seniors - graduation. On the whole, high school graduation numbers have been on the rise according to the U.S. Department of Education. However, as the chart shows there are huge disparities among states, which can be even more apparent if you look at rates in some of our inner cities and under-resourced communities, as outlined in an article from The Washington Post last year.

As schools deal with budget cuts and try to figure out the best ways to maintain and improve their graduations statistics, sports programs are among the first budget lines cut. However, sports can have a positive effect on many aspects of the students' well-being including improved academic performance (1), according to mounds of research.

This is where sport for development organizations have stepped in to take a leading role in complementing in-school sports with after-school activities for students. Many programs are set up specifically to provide two things - organized play to engage the kids in physical activity and trained mentorship and tutoring to provide guidance and emotional support. It's the trained mentors and coaches that are the common denominator throughout all sport for development programs, and set them apart from other organizations or philanthropists that may build new playing facilities or provide new equipment.

Of course kids need the proper facilities and equipment to play, but without the necessary trained mentorship and coaching sport for development provides, kids won't gain the full benefits that have been shown to put them on the path toward academic success. These are proven methods that have been used around the globe, and are mentioned in the Taliaferro report cited above as drivers of healthy behaviors both in and out of schools.

The Overtown Youth Center in Miami is a great example of this. Built with the support of NBA hall of fame athlete and Laureus Ambassador Alonzo Mourning, the center integrates a mix of academic mentorship, organized sport programs and coaching to provide children with after-school activities that focus on positive career-building influences and help the kids understand how to avoid negative influences. Part of Overtown's strategy is to provide kids with the academic support they need beyond the classroom in the same environment as they have access to sports, computer classes, music, dance, etc. The organization, which was founded in 2003, has continued to grow and has seen great success in helping to keep its students on track and graduating.

ELEVATE New Orleans is another great example demonstrating how a balance of good coaching and academic mentorship can lead to success in the classroom. The Elevate Leadership Program (ELP) is an after-school program for 7th to 12th graders that implements athletic, academic and social development activities on an individual and small group basis. The organization's goal is for each of their ELP student-athletes to matriculate to a four-year university. ELEVATE New Orleans works toward this objective by combining qualified basketball coaching and strength and conditioning training with daily academic tutoring, ACT/SAT test prep, life skills workshops and nutrition education. ELP has experienced tremendous success, seeing 100 percent of its students graduate and matriculate to four-year colleges.

There are countless other sport for development organizations working with schools and implementing after-school programs around the country, and I can't help but think the writing is on the proverbial wall. Sports need to play a key role in students' lives. This doesn't need to mean varsity student athletes, but organized play and mentorship can go a long way in our efforts to raise the high school graduation rates even further. The benefits of sports can't be overlooked as a vital part of the overall learning process. As we approach graduation, we celebrate the programs and coach mentors who helped build strong, independent young people who are ready to enter the next phase of their life and thank them for their commitment to using sport as a tool for social change.

(1) Taliaferro, L. A. (2010). Relationships Between Youth Sport Participation and Selected Health Risk Behaviors From 1999 to 2007. Journal of School Health, 399-410.