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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.