Schools begin controversial grade policy Sports, activities require 2.0 GPA, no failing marks

'About time we had this'

Fears many athletes might be ineligible seem to be unfounded

November 19, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County's plan to keep academically troubled students out of extracurricular activities -- including athletics -- got serious this week with the opening of the winter high school sports season.

Throughout the county's high schools, controversy still rages over the new policy. But the fears of large numbers of athletes failing to make the grade appear not to have been borne out. And the new policy appears to have succeeded -- in at least a few cases -- in pushing students to improve classwork.

The school system has not compiled a total of ineligible athletes, said Donald Disney, coordinator of athletics. But initial reports from Howard coaches and athletes suggest that at most high schools only a handful of students who had intended to play sports this winter failed to do well enough in school to be eligible for athletics.

One of the hardest-hit sports teams appears to be the wrestling squad at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School, team members said. "We lost at least three guys to the new rules," said senior Bryan Frizzelle, 17, who is eligible.

But most Howard coaches and athletes appear to have been prepared for the new policy, which forbids athletes from failing a class.

"The coaches and the school made it very clear what was coming," said basketball player Stefanie Bassett, 16, a junior at Wilde Lake High School. "They told us that we had to make the grade to be able to play, and if you weren't listening it was your own fault."

The eligibility policy, which was approved in August and took effect Friday with the opening of practices for winter sports, is the toughest in the Baltimore area.

It requires students who want to participate in extracurricular activities or play high school sports to have a 2.0 grade-point average and no failing grades. While the policy affects all extracurricular activities -- or about 70 percent of Howard's 10,700 high school students -- it was aimed primarily at athletes.

Howard's previous eligibility policy also required a 2.0 average, but it allowed students to have one failing grade. It also had a provision allowing failing students to improve their grades early in the season and regain their eligibility -- an option eliminated by the school board.

Other area school systems still allow one or two failing grades, and most do not have any grade-point requirement.

Students made aware

Howard coaches, principals and teachers said a heavy emphasis was placed on making sure students were aware of the new policy. They said that tutoring, mandatory study halls and frequent grade reports -- which have been in place at most schools since the school board last toughened eligibility standards in 1989 -- helped students keep up their grades.

Said Centennial High School boy's basketball coach Jim Hill, who lost two potential players to the policy: "The students have known since September what the policy was going to be. I just don't understand it if they didn't make the cut."

Throughout the debate over the policy, Howard school officials have maintained that few high school athletes would be affected. Fewer than 200 of the 4,250 athletes who were eligible to play sports at Howard high schools last year would have been ineligible under the new rules. The mean grade-point average of Howard athletes is 3.0, school officials say.

And as winter sports practices got under way this week, many coaches endorsed the stricter policy.

"It's about time we had this policy," said Mike Mongelli, Hammond High School boys junior-varsity basketball coach. "If we set the standards high, the kids will rise to meet it if they really want to play. And if they miss it once, they'll learn a lesson and make sure they don't miss it again."

As proof, Mongelli pointed to the academic successes of several of his players, whose low grades last year made them ineligible under the old rules.

"I learned last year," said Hammond sophomore William Gray, 16, who was ineligible last year but now has a 3.57 grade-point average. "I missed a season, so I made sure to keep my grades up all fall. I didn't like it at the time, but I'll never forget what happened."

For some freshmen, the tough standards have proved to be a startling introduction to high school.

"I did pretty well in most of my classes, but I just couldn't pass math," said a would-be freshman wrestler at Oakland Mills who ran afoul of the athletic policy this month and asked not be identified. "It's pretty tough going into high school. There should be some kind of exception for freshmen."

At Atholton High School, senior Julie Kapcala, who played soccer this fall, said she struggled in her pre-calculus class and worked hard to make sure she earned a passing grade and remained eligible to play basketball this winter. But she believes the policy will encourage some students to look for easy courses.

"This year, we didn't know about the new policy until after the school year had started," Kapcala said. "But next year, when people are choosing classes, they're going to keep this in mind."

Athlete doesn't like it

At Oakland Mills High, wrestler Frizzelle said he thinks the policy is too tough.

"I think the 2.0 is OK, but you should be able to get an E [failing grade]," he said. "Even when you work hard, it's possible to fail a class, and I don't think making someone ineligible just because they got one E is fair to them or fair to the rest of the team."

The Howard schools plan to do an in-depth analysis of the effects of the new policy, Disney said, but that likely will not be until the passing of several sports seasons.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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