- Paula Lavigne, ESPN Staff Writer
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ROCKFORD, Ill. -- School leaders here are beginning to see the benefits of making it easier for students with poor grades to keep playing sports.
Yes, they made it easier for students with low grades to stay on teams.
Students with less than a C average have been able to compete on Rockford teams since last year, when the district dropped its rule requiring athletes maintain a 2.0 GPA. The Rockford Public School District is one of at least a dozen examples nationwide -- from big cities such as Boston and Pittsburgh to smaller towns like Clinton, La., and Shelton, Wash. -- that have either lowered or dropped GPA requirements to keep kids on athletic fields.
Such moves are at odds with conventional practice. The trend is for high schools to raise academic rules for athletes, especially in light of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's plan to raise the required GPA for college athletes to a 2.3.
Eliminating GPA requirements at some high schools has angered some people, including students, who believe that playing sports is a right to be earned.
But educators in Rockford say the standards just weren't working. During the 10 years the 2.0 rule was in place, Rockford educators did not see higher graduation rates or better test scores, said assistant superintendent Matt Vosberg. What they did see were smaller teams, a dwindling morale and students afraid to take hard classes for fear of losing eligibility.
Vosberg said district leaders believed sports could be better used as a lure to keep kids in school, and if that worked, teachers and coaches could help those students improve their grades.
"We realized right away that when we kicked kids off the team, they weren't going to library," Vosberg said. "A lot of them were disappearing from our schools. We knew that we needed to find a way to get those students back into the schools and connected with the schools."
Senior Conttrell Curry spent a lot of time on the bench during football and basketball games his first two years at Rockford's Auburn High School because his grades kept slipping below a 2.0.
"I have a couple of friends who, because of the 2.0, they didn't get to play football. So to them, why bother coming to school? A couple have dropped, and there are still a couple in here that don't do the work," he said. Without sports, "I would probably be out selling drugs or shooting people."
Rockford, like many of the cities whose districts have abandoned GPA rules, struggles with high crime and high unemployment. About 23 percent of the population in Rockford is below the poverty level, compared to a national average of 14 percent. And it was once labeled one of the top 10 most dangerous cities in America for its rate of violent crimes.
"If they don't have the incentive to come to school for a sport they love, they may not come at all," said Mat Parker, director of athletic activities and program development in Rockford. "Oftentimes, in following some of these student athletes, at worst case they end up dead, potentially end up in jail. They're not coming to school."
But Roger Blake, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, said using socioeconomic factors as a reason to lower the standard is a poor excuse.
"As an educator, it's 100 percent wrong ... If we say kids can't attain [a GPA] because of the environment they're coming from, then we're failing those kids," he said. In California -- which has its share of crime-ridden impoverished neighborhoods -- state law requires students have a 2.0 GPA in order to play sports. It's one of 12 states and the District of Columbia that have GPA standards for sports statewide.
Blake said coaches and teachers just need to work harder to get students above a C average.
"Don't use the excuse, 'We're from a low-economic neighborhood,'" he said, adding that there are plenty of success stories in poor urban areas in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area to prove that standards do work. Of California's 1.9 million high school students, about 800,000 play sports. "I don't think our rule is holding back too many people," he said.
Statewide statistics also show the graduation rate is up and the drop-out rate is down, he said.
"They raised the level of expectations and students met those expectations."
Other critics of abandoning academic standards for sports say doing so is simply sending a bad message. One of those is Ted Biondo, a Rockford newspaper blogger who was on the school board in 2001 when the district introduced the 2.0 rule.
"It's like they're getting the reward without having to meet the standards. It should be the other way around," he said. "To just say, 'Well, this keeps kids in school,' well, if that's the only thing that's keeping them in school, then how does that affect all the other kids that are there to learn?"
It was an issue of fairness for Alex Trautmann, who graduated from Rockford's Guilford High School earlier this year with a 3.2 GPA. He's currently an outfielder on the baseball team at Grand Valley State University, a Division II college near Grand Rapids, Mich.
"If a kid's able to do both -- work hard and maintain in the classroom and on the field -- he shouldn't have to compete with somebody who's one-sided. There's two sides to being a student-athlete," he said. "Student-athletes should be able to handle both the workload in school and in whatever sport it is that they're playing."
Getting rid of the 2.0 standard allowed more students to play, he said, but at a price.
"I would say the talent level on the field definitely did go up," said Trautmann, who also played football and basketball. "But we did have issues with penalties, people jumping offsides. It's just back to the discipline thing. Kids weren't able to execute."
Biondo said he's convinced one of the reasons the district dropped the standard was to make the teams more competitive. This year, about 180 students are playing sports who would otherwise be ineligible. Of those, a dozen are on Auburn High School's football team. The team hadn't won a game in four years, but it pulled off a win in its first game of the season this year and is headed to the playoffs for the first time in more than 20 years.
Much of that success is also attributed to Auburn's new football coach, Dan Appino, who was lured away from a rival private high school -- with a perennial championship football team -- where he had worked for almost 30 years. Had the Rockford district not dropped the 2.0 rule, he said he would not have taken the job.
"It would not have been a level playing field to compete with other schools in the conference," he said, noting that other area schools didn't have a minimum GPA standard, which is optional in Illinois.
Rockford administrators acknowledge that hiring coaches, winning games and improving school morale were all factors in the decision, but they were secondary to academic goals.
"I think you wait and watch and see how many kids end up graduating compared to previous years with meaningful diplomas, and that's where our focus is," Vosberg said.
He said another problem with the 2.0 was that several students were taking easy classes and electives in order to stay eligible and were still unable to graduate. Now, with extra tutoring help for athletes, he said he hopes more of them will be encouraged to take harder classes, which he said would help them get into college.
Curry, the senior football player, said he's still trying to improve his grades and does want to go to college, maybe major in photography, which he grew to love after taking some shots at a relative's wedding. Even though it's tough to find time to study after football practice -- with all the distractions of Facebook and text messages -- he said the lessons he's learned about how to buckle down in football have helped him be more focused on raising his GPA.
"I'm trying to get it up high. Not a low 2, but maybe just under a 3.0," he said. "That's what I'm working on. I want to pass with ease, not just be barely passing."
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