New rules for student-athlete eligibility could hobble many teams

Chancellor Dennis Walcott spoke to members of the Boys and Girls High School track and field team at City Hall last year.

After Boys and Girls High School imposed tougher academic requirements for student-athletes in 2011, its perennially winning mens basketball team benched seven playersand exited the state tournament in the first round.

Now, the city is imposing academic and attendance standards for the 40,000 students who play school sports that are even more stringent than Boys and Girls’.

The Department of Education is officially alerting schools about the changes this week. But coaches, principals and athletic directors say they’ve known for months and are beginning to prepare for the tougher eligibility requirements, which could hobble many teams.

The changes follow new standards set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 2011 and are meant to address lagging academic performance among many of the city’s marquee athletes, coaches say.

“There was a growing concern about the way we do business,” said Wings Academy Principal Wayne Cox, referring to the previous standards. “The new policies are saying you guys have gotten away with s— for a very long time.”

Currently, Public Sports Athletic League rules allow students to miss school once a week, take few academic courses, and fall off a four-year graduation track while still remaining eligible, and the league never looks at students’ grade point averages. That means a point guard on a basketball team could be eligible to play for four seasons but still fall eight credits shy of graduation at the end of his senior year.

“On a personal level, I felt that was a travesty,” said Susan Rossi, a PSAL official who helped convene an advisory committee to oversee changes to the standards.

The committee met three times over the course of about six months, said Cox, a former coach who was also a member. The group consisted of principals, athletic directors, guidance counselors, coaches, and even representatives from the U.S. Coaches Association, Rossi said.

They recommended standards that the city is putting into effect in September for all sports. Now, students will be able to play only if they are on track to graduate. They will have to be in school 90 percent of the time; take a full course load, including at least three courses in academic subjects; earn 10 credits a year; and maintain a 65 GPA.

“I definitely think it’s going to be a challenge for those students who don’t challenge themselves academically,” said Mike Beckles,  nine-year coach of the varsity basketball team at South Shore Campus.

But he said he thought the new policies would ultimately work to boost student achievement. “There’s too many student-athletes who just want to play, to be eligible,” he said.

The new standards mark a rare reform to the PSAL under Mayor Bloomberg, who has overseen sweeping changes to almost all of his other education programs and infrastructure. It comes at a time when reforms are increasingly focused on preparing students to go to college — something that is no longer guaranteed with a high school diploma.

“I just think it’s meant to get kids to graduate,” said Benjamin Cardozo High School principal Gerald Martori. “We don’t have student athletes graduating. They finish their eligibility and then what happens?”

Still, it’s unclear how much of the directive came from the Department of Education, which controls the PSAL and has spent the last year tightening high school graduation and credit accumulation rules for all schools.

As of last month, a department spokeswoman said the department was still reviewing PSAL’s requirements. But Beckles and other coaches said they learned about the new standards in October. Athletic directors said they found out in December, when PSAL officials gave them a memo that told principals to begin informing their school community immediately.

“All of these new requirements will be go[ing] into effect in September 2013,” according to the memo, which GothamSchools obtained. “This means that principals must inform their Athletic Directors, Coaches, parents, and students as soon as possible.”

PSAL Executive Director Donald Douglas declined to comment about the new standards during a basketball tournament at Benjamin Cardozo High School last month. But coaches at the tournament said they expected the new standards to have a significant impact on high school sports next year. They warned that basketball, football, and baseball — sports that tend to attract black and Latino males, who post especially low graduation rates — are likely to take an extra hit.

“In the beginning it’s going to be difficult,” said Cheez Ezenekwe, a junior varsity basketball coach at Martin Van Buren High School. “Once people get used to it, it’ll be a good thing.”

“It might be a little surprise for people initially because even when [the principal] put it in place here at Boys and Girls, I think for coaches it was a little bit of a shock,” Ruth Lovelace, who coaches boys basketball, said today. “But after it was instituted, it’s just a way of life. You just have to try and get kids who it might be an issue for … the resources they need.”

PSAL’s new academic and attendance standards will be significantly steeper than the current ones:

  • Students will now have to have a 90 percent attendance rate, up from 80 percent.
  • Students must pass five classes and physical education class in the most recent marking period, three of which must be in “major” subjects (math, English, social sciences, and science). Career and technical education classes won’t count.
  • Students must accumulate 10 credits in the previous two marking periods prior to the season of eligibility. Previously, the number was eight credits.
  • For the first time, students must achieve a 65 grade point average. Previously there were no requirements for GPA.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.