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Backlash Hits Efforts To Tie Achievement With Extracurriculars

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In 1983, West Virginia became the first state to institute a policy linking students' academic achievement with their eligibility for extracurricular activities. A year later, an Idaho rule linking class attendance to eligibility was enacted.

Since that time, another five states--Alabama, Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, and Texas--have moved either to restrict the time students spend in extracurriculars or to tie their participation to academic requirements. And four states--Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Ohio--have either made recommendations to do so or are in the process of issuing related guidelines.

Moreover, in the absence of state mandates, tightened requirements that link students' performance and/or attendance in class with their participation in sports, band, cheerleading, and other activities have been enacted in an uncounted number of local school districts.

'Backlash' Has Begun

But in recent months, as implementation of the new regulations has sidelined quarterbacks and band members alike and led to forfeitures that shortened athletic seasons, a backlash has begun to develop.

Nancy Karweit, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said she is not surprised that tightened eligibility requirements are being questioned and considers it "a very good sign."

"I sensed that there would be a backlash," she said, because at the same time that schools were increasing extracurricular-eligibility requirements, they were also tightening grade requirements. Ms. Karweit said she doubted that many of the extracurricular rules would be enforced.

Restriction Eased

In some districts that have tried to enforce such rules, officials have already moved to rescind them amid parents' and students' protests that they are unfair, will damage school morale and student motivation, and discriminate against poor and minority students.

In Springfield, Mass., last month, after a new eligibility rule rendered 52 percent of one high school's students ineligible to participate in sports or school-sponsored clubs, the school board voted to ease the regulation.

The rule had required students to earn a C in each major subject in order to participate in outside activities; it was changed to require a C average overall in major courses, according to Thomas Donahoe, superintendent of the district, which has four high schools.

Among those who had been labeled ineligible under the new rule were class presidents, cheerleaders, athletes, and even one member of the National Honor Society, Mr. Donahoe said. All of the players on an eight-member girls' basketball team were also declared ineligible under the toughened policy.

"We found that there were inequities in the original policy," Mr. Donahoe said. "A youngster could get 2 A's, a B, and a D and not be eligible; we felt that wasn't equitable. ... We revised it and still maintained a3good strong policy."

Mr. Donahoe cautioned that school officials devising eligibility regulations should be aware of the consequences. "We don't want students backing off from advanced-placement courses for fear of being labeled ineligible," he said. "That would be a national disaster."

Court Challenge

In Texas, where participation in most extracurricular activities is limited to students who pass all of their courses with a grade of 70, state athletics officials have threatened to challenge the provision, part of the omnibus education-reform6measure approved last summer, in court.

Donald Jay, executive director of the 9,800-member Texas High School Coaches Association, said that while a suit has not yet been filed, there is "a good probability" that the association or another body will do so if a statewide survey that is currently being conducted shows that the eligibility rule has had negative effects.

Association officials have also testified in legislative hearings this month to ask that the regulations be eased, Mr. Jay said.

"We feel that as long as the youngster is making progress toward graduation, he shouldn't be penalized,'' the official said. "We think this is too severe. It is not in the best interests of the child."

"It's staggering, the number of students who have failed one course'' in the last six-week grading period, he said, noting that in one east Texas district, 27 members of a 28-member track team failed at least one course and were removed from the team.

Mr. Jay added that several students have quit school after being declared ineligible for sports and that there have been two reported suicide attempts by students affected by the rule.

But for now, the regulations are going to get even tougher in this state. Effective this spring, students may not miss any one class more than 10 times to participate in outside activities, and they must limit school practices to eight hours a week in any single activity and to a total of 20 hours weekly for all activities.

Temporary Injunction

In West Virginia, a circuit court judge last month issued a temporary injunction to prevent the Ohio County school board from enforcing the state-mandated C-average rule on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

The injunction was issued by Ohio County Circuit Court Judge Craig Broadwater in response to a suit filed against the Ohio County public schools by the mother of a student at Wheeling Park High School. That student, a wrestler said to have Olympic potential, was rendered ineligible to participate in sports as a result of the rule, according to Frank Dumas, assistant superintendent of instruction in Ohio County. The state board of education and state Superintendent Roy Truby were also named defendants in the suit.

"This one is really going to be the test," Mr. Dumas said, explaining that it is the third time the C-average rule has been contested in the state. In the first case, it was decided that the state board did have the right to set a C-average requirement; in the second case, it was determined that a local board could institute requirements that were more stringent than the state board's.

The injunction lasts until this week, when Judge Broadwater is expected to begin hearings. Until then, all students in the district who were ruled ineligible under the requirement have regained their eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities, Mr. Dumas said.

C-Average Rule

When the Prince George's County, Md., school district this school year began to require that students earn a C average to take part in outside activities, 39 percent of the district's high-school students--14,000 pupils--were declared ineligible.

Last month, a number of parents and students attended a school-board hearing to air their complaints that the regulation was un-fair because it prevented students from learning through activities as well as academic work.

They also charged that, under a board-approved student bill of rights passed in 1972, students' ability to participate in extracurricular activities cannot be limited by their academic performance, according to Jacquelyn Lendsay, a spokesman for the district.

But the board's lawyer determined after investigating the document that the board's C-average rule supercedes it, Ms. Lendsay said. School officials, she said, intend to stand fast in their support of the rule.

Minority Pupils Targeted

In Anchorage, Alaska, a district policy that prohibits students from participating in outside activities unless they have a 1.5 grade-point average and no F's has come under fire from a citizens' group that charges the rules unfairly target minority pupils.

The Citizens Advisory Educational Concerns Committee charges that the rule unfairly bars 47 percent of Hispanic high-school students from taking part in outside activities. The committee has asked the board to repeal or ease the policy, but the board thus far has refused, according to Jeanmarie Crumb, the district's director of community relations.

In September, the regulation will be tightened to require that students have a 2.0 average and no F's to participate in extracurriculars.

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