Schools' policy draws concern

New activities-eligibility ruling may lessen pupil effort, some say

Howard County

February 02, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

For the past five years, Howard County middle school pupils got a clear message: Slack off in eighth-grade and lose the opportunity to play fall sports or join a club in ninth grade.

That rule no longer applies.

Starting next school year, rising ninth-graders, regardless of their grades, will be eligible to join a fall, after-school activity under a revised academic eligibility policy approved last week by the school board. While coaches, athletic directors and some parents welcome the change, others fear the new policy may mean lower academic achievement for middle school pupils.

"Now, I am concerned in the spring - when spring fever hits and it's very difficult for teachers to keep the attention of the kids anyway - there's no carrot that says you have to keep working because you want to be eligible for high school [extracurricular activities]," said Sandra H. French, a former school board member who pushed to raise middle school academic achievement.

Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican who represents western Howard County, said the school board's decision sends a troubling message to middle school pupils.

"The consistent message among students is that eighth grade is the last grade that doesn't count toward college," Bates wrote in a letter to Courtney Watson, the school board chairman. "With that attitude, many, not all, students choose to coast through eighth grade, working at less than their full potential."

The shift in the academic eligibility policy is a reversal for the school system that had required eighth-graders to maintain a cumulative "C" average in core subjects and no failing grades in the final marking period to join fall extracurricular activities when they enter high school.

Many believe the change was necessary.

"Instead of starting with a sense of failure, you're given a fresh start," said Krista Feezel, a parent of an eighth-grader at Oakland Mills Middle School in Columbia.

Said Doug DuVall, longtime football coach at Wilde Lake High School: "Over the past 33 years, the kids that came to me from disadvantaged backgrounds, athletics enabled them to have a feeling of being someone, be successful at something, go to college and make something out of themselves."

In 2000, Howard County became one of the few school systems in Maryland to institute an eligibility requirement for incoming freshmen, which was part of an effort to toughen academic standards for middle school pupils.

Some, including athletic directors and coaches, objected to the standard from the start, saying it would be unfair, especially for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"First of all, the kids were being held accountable in high school when it wasn't related to high school. It was sort of like a punishment," said Vince Parnell, Howard High School's longtime athletic director. "As far as the statistical data, once kids get involved in extracurricular activities, they do better academically. We were stopping kids from getting involved."

The debate resurfaced in the fall when a committee recommended a tweak in the eligibility requirement - incoming freshmen must earn no lower than a 2.0 average in the final marking period of eighth grade without any failing grade in any class to qualify for fall after-school activities.

A monthslong discussion ensued, with some coaches and parents calling for the elimination of the requirement, while middle school principals said the eligibility requirement served as motivation for eighth-graders.

"Some administrators and staff feel that it's the one area that has served as an anchor and served to motivate those kids who want to participate. It gave them that much more to shoot for when learning itself was not a top priority," said C. Stephen Wallis, principal of Harper's Choice Middle School. "We need to see how [the new policy] plays out."

School board members mulled over the issue at numerous meetings, examining research suggesting positive connections between participation in after-school activities and academic achievement. A school system study in 1998 showed that the mean grade point average for student athletes was 3.11 compared with 2.65 for nonparticipants.

However, the school system's data was unclear as to whether more students were becoming ineligible because of academics or because they were cut from a sports team or dropped out of a club.

At last week's meeting, school board members were split on the issue. Watson broke a 2-2 vote, saying she was going with her "gut."

"It gives these freshmen one chance, one quarter to come in with a clean slate," Watson said. "If they don't make the grade after the first quarter, they're not eligible."

While acknowledging the importance of after-school involvement, particularly for ninth-graders, board member Joshua Kaufman came down on the other side of the issue, along with Mary Kay Sigaty.

Kaufman said he was swayed by the recommendation of middle school principals and the fact that "some kids would end up falling through the cracks academically."

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