I don't know where Basket Weaving 101 is offered in Harford high schools. Perhaps the county's Regional Association of Student Councils will let me know.
Maybe the student government leaders can also point out to administrators, who appear to be equally unaware, that this craft-making course is among the academic core subjects that lead to a graduation diploma.
It's not to belittle the well-meaning efforts of student council representatives to improve the academic achievement of their schools. Requiring a minimum grade-point average to participate school activities seems like a reasonable way to encourage improvement. Problem is, as so many school systems around the country have found over the years, that nothing is ever as simple or obvious as it first appears.
Reference to the illusive basket-weaving course came from a Harford student council leader, who scoffed at the idea that someone could pass only that kind of a course and still be eligible to play inter-scholastic sports. (Actually, a kid who could successfully design, skillfully weave and decorate such a useful container might learn more and contribute more to society than one who could reiterate abstruse academic minutiae on a final exam.)
The student's remarks not only got the course wrong, but misrepresented the current Harford County eligibility standard: Pass five subjects in a marking period and stay on track for graduation. Passing five non-required courses while failing required courses does not make a student eligible for athletics.
Harford's decade-old standard does seem, at first glance, on the low end of the state spectrum. Most of the 24 school systems allow a student to fail only one class a marking period; fewer than half set a minimum grade-point average to participate. The state tells systems to set academic requirements but does not tell them what the standards should be. But the common-sense Harford system has worked well. Without engaging in the kind of sanctimonious nitpicking that such inquiries can lead to, the county rule allows classroom underachievers to find a meaningful role in their school life -- as long as they keep on track for graduation.
Rare is the case that a top Harford athlete is so borderline in academics that his/her membership on a team standing is in repeated jeopardy. Yes, a few kids are eligible to play in Harford schools who would not be eligible in some other counties, but very few. Kids who neglect their classwork for sports are typically in deep enough trouble to fail any county's eligibility standard. Seldom is the team star declared ineligible on the eve of the big game; it's determined long before that by the previous period's grades.
And we've not heard of a team star getting special treatment in classes, either. Ineligibility can hit the best teams in Harford as well as elsewhere, as in the case of the county's regional lacrosse champion this spring.
What the county's eligibility system does is tie sports participation to the graduation requirement. The bar is raised every year as graduation becomes nearer. Failing a required course in the senior year can disqualify an athlete who otherwise has satisfactory grades. A freshman, on the other hand, has another chance to make up a failed course and stay on track, thus remaining eligible.
There's little evidence to suggest that this system encourages academic short shrift in the first years of high school to the student's ultimate detriment as a junior or senior. Instead, it issues a warning to kids that they must be serious about their grades if they hope to continue in school athletics. At the same time, it provides a chance for recovery from an early failure.
Local school boards and the state set requirements for graduation. If the athlete is satisfactorily progressing toward that goal, he/she should remain eligible for athletic competition. The youngster who can play sports and maintain academic progress is developing a more well-rounded character than one narrowly confined to grade-point achievement. Most Harford athletes do well in school. You will find more underachievers among those who do not participate in scholastic sports. Carl Roberts, Harford assistant superintendent for secondary education, says it clearly: "Athletes as a group have better grades than any other group of students."
It's not certain whether sports more than other extracurricular endeavors teaches self-discipline and hard work, or whether remaining eligible is motivation for genuine academic progress by borderline students. There are sufficient examples to the contrary in all levels of competitive sports. But the factual experience in Harford schools appears to substantiate Mr. Roberts' judgment about sports and academic achievement.
High school is not college. It is an educational opportunity offered to all children to prepare them for the future. College is not the next passage for all graduates, nor should it be the only aim of a high school education. Sometimes the strict grade-point advocates make that mistake, limiting a child's involvement in the misguided hope that it will enhance his chances to attend college.
But coaches, teachers, principals and parents have an unequivocal obligation to impress on these youth that learning is important, that failure will be shabbily rewarded in the outside world, that high school sports' accomplishment alone will not carry anyone very far in life. But a well-woven basket might.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.