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Making the (sports) grade 

Does it help or hurt students to bar them from participating in after-school sports if they have an F on their report card?

The Rochester school district adopted that ban eight years ago. School Board members were concerned that for students with low grades, sports and other extra-curricular activities consumed time that should be spent studying. And they believed that a no-F's requirement could serve as an incentive, particularly for students who wanted to be on a sports team. But a group of parents wants to revise the policy, saying that as it's enforced now, it could be counter-productive, deterring students from staying in school.

"If you take athletics away from some of these kids, they have nothing else," says parent activist Jim Greco. "This may be the one thing they love and are doing well, and we're literally punishing them."

Under the current policy, to participate in extra-curricular school activities like sports, students in grades 7 to 12 must maintain a minimum of a C average --- a 2.0 grade-point average --- and can not get an F on their report card. Students with one F are put on probation for the next six weeks. During that period, they can continue to practice and play in games. At the end of the six weeks, they must have a 2.0 GPA and have at least a D in all courses. Students with two or more F's can come to practice if they are being tutored, but they can not play in games.

Greco and other parents want the district to require only that students maintain at least a 2.0 average. And they want schools to give more help to students whose grades fall below a 2.0. For example, they want schools to use "runaround sheets": a student with less than a 2.0 would get signatures of a team of faculty advisors each day, confirming that the student was improving. And the district would be required to provide tutoring.

Students could continue to participate in sports, as long as the runaround sheet was being signed and the student was meeting the advisors' expectations.

"It puts a little more work on teachers and counselors," says Greco, "but in the long run, it says to students that we have a safety net. We're not just saying: You failed, so don't come back until you do better. We're not just cutting them loose. We're keeping them in school, and we are working on improving their grades in real time. We're not waiting five or six weeks to evaluate how they are doing. We're fixing the problem now, before it gets worse."

At least one School Board member thinks the current policy should be reviewed.

"The way I understand this, we're not talking about lowering the bar for athletes," says Commissioner Tom Brennan. "What we are really talking about is enhancing the carrot-stick approach. We should not be doing anything to encourage students or give students a reason to stop coming to school. I like the idea that we are creating an intervention team of educators to help this student, not just sending him to study hall."

Critics of the current policy also charge that it is not evenly applied. School of the Arts students who receive an F, for example, are still allowed to perform in school plays because they're considered part of the curriculum.

The RochesterSchool District's eligibility policy is apparently one of the toughest in the area. Students at Bishop Kearney become ineligible for after-school athletics with three F's. Fairport warns students with two F's that they must raise at least one of the F's to a passing grade within two weeks or they cannot play in a game. Fairport also uses a daily runaround sheet to help monitor student improvement.

School boards across the country are confronting the eligibility issue, says education writer Paul Riede. And many policy makers would rather not deal with the issue, he writes in the June issue of School Administrator magazine ("Athletic Eligibility: Struggling to Raise the Bar"). A Massachusetts superintendent told Riede: "You talk about the budget, and there are about 5 people in the audience. You talk about sports, and there are 20."

No school board wants to be accused of lowering the academic bar, writes Riede, but when the Buffalo school district raised its standards for athletic eligibility, coaches complained that they were losing their top performers.

California, a "no pass-no play" state, found that academic standards could be raised without reducing student participation once an adjunct support program was put in place, according to a 2002 study by the American Sports Institute.

NazarethCollege associate professor Barbara Francis says it's the relationship students often develop with coaches that makes the difference, and she argues that punitive measures don't work. "Coaches create unique bonds with their students, and they get them to work in a team," she says. Students "need adults in their lives who demonstrate this intense caring and concern for them," says Francis.

Greco says the policy revision has already been presented to Superintendent Manuel Rivera and several School Board members. He is hoping that at its next meeting, on August 17, the board will vote to study the revision.

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