New GPA rules could mean six Baltimore schools couldn't field any teams. Now the district is easing them

The Baltimore school system is revising its academic standards for student athletes after district officials estimated that rules taking effect this year meant six high schools might not be able to field a single sports team this fall.

Under academic eligibility standards approved by the school board in 2016, students must have a grade-point average of at least 2.0 and no more than one failing grade to play interscholastic sports. For fall sports such as football, a student would need to have earned at least a 2.0 GPA during the previous year’s fourth quarter or in summer school.

The district is now delaying the implementation of that rule. Students will have until after first-quarter report cards before their eligibility for sports is determined based on GPA.

Officials said they want to give students and coaches time to adjust to the new standard. Previous rules required only that students have no more than one failing grade.

“We’re making sure we’re being fair to students who are affected by this and may not have fully understood what was at play before,” said Sarah Warren, the district’s executive director of whole child services and support.

Students will not be immediately eligible to play fall sports this year if they had more than one failing grade during the final quarter of last school year.

Under another revision, a student who doesn’t earn a 2.0 GPA during one quarter will still be eligible if his or her cumulative GPA from the previous four quarters is at least 2.0. Officials said they want to make sure they are being fair to students who have shown progress throughout the year but might have had one bad semester.

“There’s been situations that have come across my desk where a student may have been living with their grandmother, and their grandmother passes,” said Sean Conley, the school system’s chief academic officer. “This student may have been an A or B student, but then the grades just plummeted. We want to make sure we’re looking at the student as more of a totality than at just that one moment.”

More than half of high school students in Baltimore are living in poverty. Many are homeless, and many deal with the effects of Baltimore’s pervasive violence.

“Our kids face so much adversity outside of school,” said Richard Jackson, athletic director at Benjamin Franklin High School. “I’d hate to have to throw even more adversity when they get to school.”

Jackson, who coaches volleyball, said he and other coaches have been reaching out to academically at-risk athletes since they found out about the revisions Thursday. Two of his players, previously ruled ineligible, told him they’re now ready to go and plan to report to practice on Monday.

Jackson said he supports raising academic expectations, but thinks delaying implementation is a good way for his school to ease into the new rules.

Without the revisions, he said, all fall sports at Ben Franklin would have suffered. He didn’t know whether the students deemed ineligible would have returned.

“We would have lost them, to be honest,” he said. “Those kids would have faded off.”

The first quarter ends Nov. 9. Students will have to meet the minimum GPA requirement to participate in winter sports, which include basketball and wrestling.

The district estimated that six city high schools were at risk of losing all their fall sports teams and that an additional eight could have lost at least one fall team. The revisions could allow an additional 225 students to play for their schools this fall. There are 19 city high schools in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.

Officials declined to say which schools were at risk of losing fall teams.

City Councilman Brandon Scott was a vocal proponent of raising the standards in 2016. He said he’s disappointed that they’re being revised, but he understands.

“We need to continue to reform and revamp and uplight our education for our children,” he said. “We have to want and demand better for our children.”

The school board decided in 2016 that it was necessary for the district to institute higher academic standards to raise expectations and enforce the idea that participating in interscholastic athletics is a privilege. Five years earlier, the state school board recommended that students be required to maintain a C average to play high school sports.

Many surrounding school districts have had a 2.0 GPA standard in place for years.

The city’s policy is also intended to prepare students for college athletics. The NCAA requires students to earn a minimum GPA of 2.3 GPA to play Division I sports.

Conley said he doesn’t see the revised regulations as a watering down of the standards.

“Holding our students to the highest academic standard is the utmost priority here for us at city schools,” he said. “We’re creating a high standard for our athletes, and that’s positive, that’s good.

“But just as important, we’re being thoughtful and making sure we have the academic supports in our schools.”

The district is also introducing a formal “academic probation” this school year, which establishes a 20-day period in which students may regain sports eligibility.

During probation, students will be able to practice with their teammates, but won’t be allowed to compete, wear a uniform or travel to games. Schools will provide athletes who are on probation with advising, mentorship and study halls to help them get back on track.

Students who failed more than one class during the 2017-18 school year will start the fall season on academic probation unless they passed the courses in summer school.

City schools spokeswoman Anne Fullerton said it’s important for the district not to push its students away as it raises expectations.

“For some kids,” she said, “playing a sport is what brings them to school.”

Ben Franklin football coach Bernard Morgan says that’s true. When some kids don’t have the chance to play, he said, “it serves them back to the street.”

Morgan estimated six of his football players would not have been eligible, before the revisions. He said he’s going to push them and their teammates harder next year.

“They're going to be more aware of what they need to do,” he said. “I'm going to be much harder on them. We’re going to really watch them.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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