About 4,100 Wichita students will spend part of their school day at Intrust Bank Arena on Wednesday, watching basketball, eating lunch, talking about college, and potentially raising the city's profile with NCAA Tournament officials.
The free open practice day "really is an opportunity for the city to show off," said Mike Ross, director of media operations for the tournament. "A big crowd for that only reflects well on the city."
Thirty-two Wichita schools have planned field trips to the NCAA tournament event, where eight teams — some accompanied by their bands and mascots — will shoot around for 40 minutes each. Students and chaperones will take school buses to the arena and back, paid for by the district with grant funds, officials said.
Wendy Johnson, director of strategic communications for Wichita schools, said the free practice day offers a chance for schoolchildren to be part of something big in the community — and the district wanted to be part of it.
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"This is an event that has not happened in our city during the lifetime of any of our kids," Johnson said. "So it is a pretty special opportunity for people to be able to celebrate and just be a part of that magic."
Ben Mitchell, principal at Brooks Magnet Middle School, played basketball for Kansas State University in the 1980s. He and a handful of faculty members will accompany about 50 students to Wednesday's practice day, and they're using the event to help the kids think about college and beyond.
"If you're a young boy or girl and you love basketball and you get a chance to see something like that, it's just incredible," Mitchell said.
At Brooks, the field trip is a reward for students who "have been making some better choices, making improvements with their academics or behavior and just turning some things around," Mitchell said.
Teachers and coaches also are using the field trip as "a learning experience," he said. They'll talk about the eight universities sending teams to Wichita and will be looking up information about the schools — where they're located, their enrollment and diversity, any notable majors or special programs, and admission requirements.
"We want kids to be thinking, 'What does it take to go to a school like that?'" Mitchell said. "That will help them dream, and when you dream big there's no telling what you might do."
That's been the topic of conversation at Griffith Elementary School as well, where about 240 third, fourth and fifth graders will be part of Wednesday's field trip to the NCAA tournament.
"We'll talk about how good players also need to have good grades, a good attitude, and they need to be respectful," said Linda Brown, principal at Griffith. "We're making that connection between sports and college and showing the kids all the things that might be available to them when they go to college."
Johnson, who served as Admiral Windwagon Smith at last year's Wichita River Festival, said the district also wants students to think about how major events help the community.
"I am excited that our kids will have opportunity and access to perhaps the biggest source of community pride that Wichita will experience this year," she said.
"All kinds of conversations are happening about how we keep our talent in the community. Part of that is helping kids see that this community is a place for them, that they have a chance to celebrate and know that Wichita is a good, vibrant community to be part of."
Mitchell, the Brooks principal, said his students are excited to be a part of the madness in downtown Wichita. But many are looking forward to something else as well.
"They probably will like the concession stand best," he said, laughing.