Practice for the fall sports season began at high schools throughout the county Wednesday, absent many players who are academically ineligible under a tougher policy that takes effect for the coming school year.
One failing grade in the last quarter of the previous school year made nearly a third of Harford County's more than 12,000 high school students ineligible for athletics, drama, chorus or any other extracurricular activity.
"The most shocking thing is that 29 percent of our students have failed a class," said school board member Lee Merrell. "It should re-emphasize for us that we have to identify those having trouble."
School board member Ruth R. Rich urged officials to use the ineligibility data, released last week, to look at which students are having problems and in what areas, and then put intervention programs in place. Strengthening the requirement shows students "that education on the field or the stage must come along with general education," she said.
For years, the system had allowed students with two failing grades to be involved in after-class activities. Officials toughened the policy to one failure a year ago and implemented a no-failure policy for the coming school year. Howard, Carroll, Frederick and Cecil counties have similar policies, officials said.
"To what degree can any school system tolerate failure and still allow participation?" said David A. Volrath, executive director of secondary education for Harford County schools. "That's a privilege that requires you to perform at certain levels in the classroom."
Harford's data do not show how many ineligible students usually participate in sports or in other activities, but Volrath said he would like to review information to determine which classes gave students the most problems. Failure often is the result of a lack of effort, more than a lack of proficiency, he said.
"Kids should be able to pass their classes if they come regularly and make the best effort," he said. "That 29 percent indicates a large number of kids who don't see the impact of a failing grade on their academic records."
Some students have appealed their ineligible status and have reported for practice, pending the outcome. Each high school forms a committee to review those appeals and those asking for re- instatement must make a case for themselves.
"They have to show what they have done and why they are entitled to an exception," Volrath said.
Kenneth Zorbach, acting supervisor of high school physical education and interscholastic athletics, said he fully supports the no-failure policy, which he said improves athletics as well as academics. History has shown that most students who want to be involved in activities "will do what it takes to come up to standards.
"We are in the business of educating students," he said. "They have to step up to the plate and be accountable for what they are doing in the classroom, if they want to play a sport or be in drama club."