Eligibility hits home at high schools

Diverse landscape of secondary education offers myriad problems, solutions

Originally Published: August 7, 2012
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

Todd Simon sees it all the time.

As an assistant basketball coach and the de facto academics coordinator at one of the country's least traditional and most sought-after high school hoops destinations, Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., just outside Las Vegas, Simon finds himself guzzling from a fire hose of high school academic transcripts from prospective players every year.

[+] EnlargeFindlay Prep
AP Photo/Cal Sport MediaOne of the country's most decorated high school basketball programs, Findlay Prep operates as a separate entity from the high school that educates its players.

Many report cards are good: core classes in order, grade-point average on safe terrain, graduation prospects looking bright. Other transcripts are, well, not.

"Some of the transcripts we've come across, you should just see them," Simon said. "They're abominable.

"It's not that kids aren't making the grades," Simon said. "It's that they're not even passing classes. Whatever it is, and it may be someone in their ear giving them bad advice, no one's explaining to them that they're not even going to graduate, let alone qualify [for NCAA competition]."

Which is why the NCAA's new initial eligibility guidelines have been met with both approval and consternation among high school coaches and administrators charged with preparing athletes for what may be their best shot at a college scholarship.

At schools with the resources and academic chops, this effort comes naturally. At others, the new standards are seen as too unrealistic a measure, taken too early in a teenager's development.

In the background of this sweeping NCAA reform is an American secondary education system that comprised nearly 25,000 schools and 16 million students in 2008-09, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those numbers include segmented schools and K-12s, public schools and private academies, boarding schools and basketball factories, magnet schools and charter efforts, schools with more than 1,000 enrollees (25.7 percent), schools with fewer than 100 (17.8 percent), and everything in between. Private schools are subject to their own graduation standards. Public institutions must meet state-sponsored testing benchmarks mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

Despite the efforts of lawmakers to introduce widely accepted state and federal public education standards, learning in America remains a highly varied and provincial beast.

Can the NCAA's new standards take that into account? And if they can't, will once-promising athletes -- for the lack of a better phrase -- be left behind?


Elyse Colgan has seen both sides of the academic coin. A former water polo player at Princeton, Colgan played one year of professional water polo in Italy before returning to the United States to take a position with Teach For America, a national corp of college graduates who pledge two years to work in under-resourced urban and rural public schools.

In 2008, Colgan arrived at Charles R. Drew Middle School in Compton, Calif. She encountered a host of typical urban education challenges: high teacher turnover, overcrowded classrooms, segmented schedules, limited access to textbooks, parents working two and three jobs to make ends meet. During her first week, Colgan remembers, the kids bluntly told her "Drew students don't go to college." Colgan taught math to 180 of the school's eighth-grade students, some of whom lagged far behind their grade-level skills -- the products of "social promotion."

"We don't have the resources to hold kids back, so often if they are really behind in fourth or fifth grade they still advance," Colgan said. "By eighth grade the achievement gap becomes huge."

Social promotion is just one of many challenges educators -- and by extension the NCAA -- face in getting students ready to begin their eligibility process in ninth grade, a key component of the new academic reforms which require 10 of a prospective student-athlete's 16 required core courses to be completed by the beginning of their senior year of high school.

Still, Colgan found ways to close the gap. High expectations and follow-through were key, but most impactful, she said, was her experience as a college athlete -- which gave her students a sense that college, even Division I athletics, was not a mythical, unattainable goal.

"It changed the way I interacted with my kids," Colgan said. "I think it helped them understand the opportunity they had in front of them. Some of my kids that saw themselves as potential athletes, and I saw their growth, the way they buckled down to make improvements for themselves. It is a powerful incentive."

It also left Colgan with a distinct educational worldview -- that students must be challenged, and that no student is truly incapable of meeting those challenges.

"It's incredibly challenging work," Colgan said. "But we should never be lowering expectations. If these kids fundamentally understand what is in front of them, if they're inspired by it, they can succeed."


For his part, Simon has it easy.

Prep stars from across the United States (and, ever more frequently, Canada) want to come to Findlay to boost their recruiting profile. Why? Since the program's inception in 2006, every player who has gone through it has earned a scholarship to attend a Division I school.

And that's not the only reason. Findlay Prep has yet to send a player to a Division I program who wasn't eligible to play in his first season on campus. As such, transfer supply is far greater than demand; Findlay fields one 12-man team and accepts just a few new players, mostly juniors, into the program each season.

"It's allowed us to be pretty picky with the players we bring on," Simon said. "We don't do a lot of rehabbing of transcripts, mostly because we don't need to."

When Findlay players do arrive, they become part of one of the nation's most effective -- and, frankly, strangest -- secondary education-meets-elite athletics models. Findlay Prep is not a school per se. Rather, it's a basketball program tied to a private school, the nearby Henderson International School. Players live in a five-bedroom house near campus, purchased by program founder (and local automotive dealer) Cliff Findlay, whose foundation also pays for the pricey Henderson tuition as well as travel expenses for the team.

This model has unsurprisingly drawn its fair share of criticism, which was widespread even before the school stopped offering grades 9-12 . But Simon explained that the Findlay players still receive intimate instruction (typically in classes of five) from the same high school-certified teachers as when Henderson offered K-12. The NCAA Eligibility Center has repeatedly held Findlay Prep in good standing.

Findlay may be the most glaring high-profile example of the wildly varying education models the NCAA annually combs through in its quest to ensure all prospective athletes will arrive on member campuses ready to learn. Representatives from the 10-person High School Review arm of the Eligibility Center not only have to review 100,000 core course submissions each year. They also make unannounced on-site visits to campuses -- five representatives have visited Findlay once a year for the past two years, according to Simon -- to make sure things stay on the up and up.

In the meantime, Findlay's success and exclusivity have allowed Simon to eschew many of the potential eligibility awareness problems larger, less focused schools are sure to face.

"We're fortunate," Simon said. "We've got the resources and staff and the number of kids where we can constantly focus on these guys' paths forward. Our guys know where their core courses stand better probably than they know their average points per game. We talk about it all the time."


The setup at Lawrence North High School, a large four-year public high school on the northeast side of Indianapolis, is far more conventional than at Findlay -- and the polar opposite of many urban public schools with similarly sized enrollments.

In 2011-12, Lawrence North educated a diverse group of 2,303 students. The school's website isn't afraid to flaunt high graduation and college enrollment rates, 750 available courses, in-house tutoring centers, highly ranked visual and performing arts groups, a "Freshman School" built to ease the transition from eighth to ninth grade -- even a Model United Nations, if that's your thing. Great college athletes, like former Ohio State stars Greg Oden and Mike Conley, have matriculated at LN, and the school's athletic programs have recently won multiple state titles in track, wrestling and swimming.

In short, LN seems like the kind of place in which the star athletes and the members of the anime club -- yes, the school has an anime club -- stand an equal chance of long-term life success.

Not that any of that makes Brad Cangany's job easier. Cangany, the chair of the guidance department and a tennis coach at Lawrence North, counts among his duties the continued progression of the school's athletes toward graduation -- and, if applicable, NCAA Division I eligibility.

Most of the time, those two goals are seamless.

"Our graduation requirements here in Indiana are such that if a student fulfills those and maintains a good enough grade-point average, they're going to qualify for the NCAA without trouble," Cangany said. "Where we run into trouble is when students struggle with core classes early in their careers."

Cangany has taken steps to prevent that from happening -- or to at least make his students aware of the changing stakes at the start of their high school careers. The school's athletic department has begun using a piece of software that maps students' transcripts and compares them to LN's NCAA-approved course titles. If his students can manage four core courses a year, they end up well on pace to meet the NCAA's new senior-year requirements. But the key, even at a school like LN, is getting them to buy in early.

"The students struggling to qualify are also the students less likely to log into their program," Cangany said. "Sometimes you have guys where you have to literally sit them down in front of their computer and help them create their account. We tell them, look, these coaches are interested in you and they want to see your transcripts. We've got to show them something to let them know you're going to be eligible. This is part of the responsibility -- it's not enough just to be a ballplayer."

As for the new eligibility requirements, Cangany, a 25-year veteran of high school guidance counseling, understands why the NCAA is upping the core-course ante. The previous system -- in which athletes could rehabilitate their GPAs in one late flourish of sudden academic excellence -- allowed athletes and coaches to more easily game the system. Meanwhile, as online classes become ever more mainstream, 20th century educational benchmarks (time spent in a classroom, for example) are fading, and separating the real coursework from the last-ditch efforts is only becoming more difficult. And then there's simple geographic reality.

"Sometimes when someone transfers from another state, I'll look at their transcript and say, 'What in the world was this,'" Cangany said. "What are these courses? There's a long list of things the NCAA has to figure out going forward."

Still, while he understands the challenges faced by many students and educators across the country -- particularly those whose funding doesn't come close to providing for an anime club -- Cangany finds the new benchmarks to ultimately be fair. After all, a 2.3 GPA should be doable, shouldn't it?

"What I've run into here and there over the years is students who aren't gifted, but they're conscientious," he said. "They take responsibility for their academics. You don't have to be extraordinarily bright; you just have to take care of business. The athletes who have struggled over the years are ones who neglect some of the simplest expectations -- they just don't turn in their work. They don't think they have to bother.

"The younger students now have to recognize: You've got to at least do the homework," Cangany said. "Put in the effort. Pass the class."


Since 2003, according to Dan Hanner at RealGM.com, Hargrave Military Academy (Va.) has produced 81 Division I college basketball players, who in turn produced 50,868 points in 235 individual college seasons. No other school in the country -- Oak Hill Academy comes closest -- can tout statistics anywhere close to the frequency with which Hargrave feeds the collegiate ranks.

Walter Sullivan, the academic dean at Hargrave, has overseen much of this immense success, and he speaks about the process with the same precise tone one imagines is used frequently on the campus of the 103-year-old military boarding school, where the day is tightly scheduled from dawn 'til dusk.

"Every year, all of our coaches sit down with their students and talk to them about NCAA requirements," Sullivan said. "Before a player has even been identified as a Division I candidate, he is being coached through how he will begin to plan his academic program, and what the standards are that he is expected to meet."

Before that, though, Sullivan welcomes fresh students from across the country every year, some of whom have struggled in their previous situations. Hargrave also offers a postgraduate year, a feature unique to boarding schools that allows four-year high school graduates (both athletes and non-athletes) to improve their college readiness skills and, yes, GPAs in time to find placement at a Division I school.

For years, Hargrave's postgraduate offering presented a great example -- not only for its attendees, but for shady store-front schools posing as legitimate secondary institutions. In 2007 the NCAA passed a rule stating that upon entering ninth grade, athletes had only four years to meet the eligibility standards in core academic courses. After those four years, athletes are permitted to take only one additional core course at any recognized high school.

The rule helped to close the diploma-mill loophole, but, Sullivan said, the inability to take multiple postgraduate core courses had already placed a greater importance on earlier education -- a shift the NCAA drove home this summer.

"These are significant changes," Sullivan said. "You can't wait until the postgraduate program to work on academic development of students anymore. But this is like anything else: You have to set the goal for the student and hold the student to that goal. Too many good athletes are given grades or passed in classes based on athletic ability. They haven't developed the academic skills because they haven't been asked."


"When the tsunami hits, what happens?"

That's the rhetorical question NCAA Eligibility Center president Todd Leyden asked ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil. What happens when the new requirements go into effect? Are athletes and coaches and guidance counselors ready? Will the new standards be communicated and adopted in time to prevent the NCAA's dire calculations -- that 43 percent of men's basketball players in 2009-10 would be ineligible under the new requirements -- from coming to fruition?

That scenario has Simon hoping the NCAA shows some measure of leniency in its new eligibility requirements. Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, said the NCAA would maintain its usual waiver process that will "examine how the student has trended over four years."

"They shouldn't bank on that," Lennon said. "But there is an evaluative procedure available. We're expecting young people to take their courses early on. We should see that it builds on itself."

In the meantime, coaches, guidance counselors and the NCAA all agree -- they need to get the word out to young students in schools and tournaments across the country, and they need to be creative in doing so. Simon wants to see a major outreach program, not only in schools but at sanctioned summer tournaments, where would-be prep phenoms are forced to view the NCAA Eligibility Center requirements before they're allowed to play in front of college coaches.

"The No. 1 problem I can see is a lack of information," Simon said. "What are the NCAA and its institutions doing to get into the big public schools, to get the word out at tournaments? They have to explain the urgency here. The second you graduate eighth grade, you have to be aware of your future."

Colgan agrees. She believes it is necessary to help middle school and early high school students understand the new requirements from an early age. More than that, though, she wants to see current and former college athletes in schools providing "powerful examples young people can internalize and be inspired by."

She sees a larger opportunity for the NCAA to influence not only on its own membership's academic standards, but the "root causes of educational inequity itself."

"The impact we can have is so real," Colgan said. "When you think about a kid's favorite basketball player explaining to him how he got to where he is, stressing the importance of academics -- it's an incredibly powerful message. 'Look, this is why it's worth the work.' It's not enough just to communicate it. It's how we communicate it that matters."

In the short term, the NCAA is staring down two things: a huge and incongruous secondary American education system, and the clock. For thousands of prospective Division I student athletes, the eligibility process begins this fall. There is no time to spare.

For now, the NCAA may have to forgo inspiration for sheer communication.

What if the word doesn't get out? The tsunami is coming. What happens then?

"We could see sweeping ineligibilities across the board, with huge unintended consequences," Simon said. "It could be a major disaster."

ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil contributed reporting.