Eligibility for athletes is debated Proposed rules would be strictest in Baltimore area; Vote set for Thursday; Failing grade .. would prevent students from playing


As Howard County high school athletes hit the practice fields for the first time early yesterday morning, they had something more daunting to talk about than new pass plays: proposed new academic eligibility standards that would be the toughest in the Baltimore area.

"I agree with it in a way, but there's going to be some athletes failing who are the backbone of your team," sophomore Eric Wright, 14, who plays football and basketball at Atholton High School, said yesterday. "It could be tough for some of us to meet the standards."

The proposal -- to be voted on by the Howard school board Thursday -- would prohibit students with a failing grade in any class or a grade point average below 2.0 from playing sports or participating in any extracurricular activities.

Students have been eligible even if they have a failing grade, as long as they maintain a 2.0 average.

Students also would be prohibited from using summer school to regain eligibility under the proposal. And it would eliminate a provision that gives failing students a chance to regain their eligibility by improving grades at the beginning of the season.

By contrast, other area school systems allow students to fail either one or two classes, and most do not have any grade point average requirement.

While the new policy would apply to all Howard students who participate in extracurricular activities -- about 70 percent of the county's 10,100 high school students -- it is aimed primarily at athletes, say the county high school principals who designed the proposal.

School officials have estimated that relatively few of Howard's 4,250 high school athletes would be in jeopardy of becoming ineligible.

The mean grade point average for a Howard athlete is 3.0, and it's believed that fewer than 200 students who were eligible last year would be made ineligible under the proposed changes.

Nevertheless, the executive committee of the county's PTA Council already has testified against part of the proposal -- warning that the prohibition on any failing grades may discourage students from taking challenging courses.

Yesterday was the first day student athletes throughout the state could hold practices at their schools, under state rules. In Howard, students -- many of whom were only learning about the proposal yesterday -- have mixed feelings.

Many voiced concern about failing classes where they don't get along with a teacher or just don't understand the subject very well.

"I had an 'E' in English at the beginning of last year because I didn't hit it off right with my teacher, and then I improved my grades all the way up to an 'A,' " said sophomore Andy Parkman, 15, who plays football for Howard High School. "I think the 2.0 standard is a good one, but you need to be allowed to fail one class because sometimes it just happens, no matter how hard you try."

Other athletes said it is tough to fail a class in most county high schools as long as homework is completed and students pay attention -- a thought shared privately by many of the county's principals.

"It's easy to get a 'D,' " said senior Jill Feldstein, 16, who runs cross country and track at Hammond High School. "You've got (( to actively not do your work to end up failing a class by the end of the semester."

Some athletes said they are worried that the plan may lead to students dropping out of school because sports is the only thing keeping them in the classrooms.

"It's a stupid idea," said junior Paul Hicks, 15, who plays football and lacrosse at Oakland Mills High School. "It's going to take away a chance to play for a lot of kids, and that's the only thing keeping them out of trouble."

Eliminating the provision to give failing students a chance to regain their eligibility by improving their grades in the beginning of the season -- known in the county as "the plan" -- also drew a mixed reaction.

"They should keep the plan around, because it gives you a chance to get your grades in order," said senior John Wallace, 16, who runs cross country and track at Hammond and regained his eligibility last spring after his grade point average slipped below 2.0. "I got a chance, and this year I'm back up to a 3.0."

Many students agreed with the county's principals that academics should come first. Students who value extracurricular activities will pay more attention to their grades under the new plan, they said.

"Schoolwork should be the top priority," said freshman Andrew Price, 14, who will play soccer and lacrosse at Long Reach High School. "If you're having problems with it, then you shouldn't be playing."

Erin Rieben, 15, a junior who plays field hockey and lacrosse for Atholton High School, said, "People who can't pass can get tutoring. I guess some people might end up failing, but it's their fault for not seeking out the help."

Said Oakland Mills senior football and baseball player Joe Rubbo, 17: "It should be a 2.5, not a 2.0. It'll weed out people who are barely getting by."

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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