Local schools cutting through the digital clutter with #AthleteExchange

Members of the Palisades Park girls basketball program visited their counterparts at Cresskill for the launch of #AthleteExchange, a program designed to foster respect between rival schools.

CRESSKILL – The smart phone recently celebrated its 10th birthday and unfettered access to the internet and social media applications have grown up inside this computer-in-the-pocket. The current crop of middle school and high school students are coming of age smack dab in the middle of this mass communications revolution and will be the case study of its long-term effects. Because those results are years away from being able to be tabulated school administrators and the like are trying to deal with the issues that are already identifiable.

A decline in interpersonal communication skills and a rise of ‘cyber-bullying’ or at least ‘cyber-taunting,’ have changed the ways that conversation is conducted and put up barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ With the newly launched Athlete Exchange, local school administrators are trying to restore some civility to the social discourse of young people and they are using high school sports as the vehicle.

The program, conceived by Dr. Joseph Cirillo, the superintendent of schools in Palisades Park, launched this week with its own social media hashtag (#AthleteExchange) and the hopes that it will expand to school districts and rival teams throughout Bergen County, North Jersey and beyond.

Palisades Park and Cresskill will face each other in boys and girls basketball on Friday night in the season opener. On Wednesday morning, four members of the Pal Park girls basketball team were at Cresskill High School to spend half of the school day shadowing and getting to know the very players they will compete against in the season’s first game. On the boys side, it was vice-versa as four Cresskill players visited Pal Park High School to get to know their upcoming opponents as more than just a number and a name on a different colored jersey.

“We are very concerned about the growing trend in athletics, because it is such a passion based activity, that it is spilling over into violence or at least spilling over in to saying inappropriate things about an opponent’s appearance or other superficial aspects. We want to stop that and the best way to stop that is to get to know each other on a personal level,” said Mike Burke, the superintendent of schools in Cresskill. ”What we hope we can teach each other and teach other schools is that we can compete against each other, we can try to beat each other on the scoreboard, but we can do it with respect. That is the idea; respectful competition and I am glad Dr. Cirillo came up with idea and I am glad that our school district can be a part of it.”

The idea is not so much to highlight the differences between the two school districts but to show just how much their students have in common as they manage their high school experience.

“Right now we are just two schools and we are just two teams, but we want to build a model for other schools that might want to mirror this. There are already some that expressed interest and today is just the first step,” said Dr. Cirillo. “The idea is to form a respect beyond just basketball. All of these athletes here are role models; they are the ones wearing the school’s name across their chest and represent their team, their school and their community. I am not going to force them to exchange email addresses, phone numbers, snapchats…nothing, but I do hope it happens naturally and I do hope the respect extends far past the game on Friday night.”

In an informal setting over crumbcake from a local bakery, the group was addressed by a variety of adults with a variety of perspectives on what they hoped the student-athletes would get out of the simple act of spending a few hours together. The Cresskill contingent included Burke, principal John Massaro, athletic director Beth DelVecchio and girls basketball head coach Mike McCort. Cirillo and girls basketball head coach Will Hutchinson did most of the talking from Palisades Park perspective.

The message seemed to be getting through, even less than one hour into Wednesday’s schedule of events.

“Before the Palisades Park girls showed up we were talking about how this might go. They were going to come here and shadow us and what if it was awkward? Would we have anything to say to each other? But when [the administrators] talked to us before they arrived we kind of understood what this was supposed to be all about,” said Courtney Madison, a Cresskill junior. “We realized that we know who those girls are on the basketball court, but we don’t know anything else about them and we were going to get the opportunity to find out. Now, sitting here, I am excited to see what the rest of the day will bring.”

Madison was seated next to Lani White, a Palisades Park senior who is not only getting ready for her final high school basketball season, but also is in the middle of the college selection process. White could be a senior at any other high school in North Jersey and still be experiencing the same opportunities and anxieties that come with trying figure out what comes next. That is what the Athlete Exchange is designed to do; to show that what kids from different places have in common is more than what makes them different.

“My coach told me about this yesterday at lunch and I had no idea what to think about it. I am not going to lie; I did not like anyone here because I can be very judgmental. When he told me, I was like, ‘Why are we going there?” said White. “Then I kept asking questions about it, I decided to give it a try and as soon as we walked in these [Cresskill] girls were very welcoming. They were nice and right away I decided that I do not dislike them anymore. I think the day together is going to be fun.”

That was quick…and part of the plan.