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Charges of Redshirting in La. Prompting Questions of Values

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In the northern Louisiana town of West Monroe, the junior high school didn't have a parking lot for all the vehicles that its 8th graders drove to school last year.

Never before were so many students repeating the 8th grade and therefore old enough to drive in this state where 15-year-olds are allowed behind the wheel. Nineteen boys had been retained, but not because they had failed their courses or couldn't master the material. Some, in fact, were straight-A students.

They were held back at their parents' request, many in the community claim, to give nature a hand in boosting their physiques--and their prospects of gridiron glory and athletic scholarships.

The allegations at West Monroe Junior High School, in the Ouachita Parish district, have brought renewed attention to what once was a relatively common practice in many regions of the country. Known as "redshirting," it has the effect of adding an extra year's eligibility for school sports and allows schools to field bigger, stronger athletes who are a year older than they would normally be.

In recent years, many districts have ditched the practice or have at a minimum permitted it infrequently or inconspicuously.

Many experts on child development say that students are more likely to be harmed if they are separated from their peers of the same age, and that they may grow bored repeating the same classes.

And in most states, the associations that govern interscholastic sports have passed more stringent regulations that limit redshirting, a term that stems from the days when athletes wore red shirts in practice sessions.

The Louisiana board of education is investigating the practice, which many critics say has continued this year at West Monroe Junior High.

"They held back 19. Economically, that is another classroom," said Jack W. White, the Ouachita Parish school board president, who blew the whistle on what people in the community call "the holdback problem."

At one time, the custom apparently was more commonplace, especially in regions of the country where high school football is supreme.

One such place was Texas. "Many years ago, Texas had a reputation for parents holding kids back for football purposes," said Cynthia Doyle, an associate athletic director for the Texas University Interscholastic League.

The state's rules for athletic eligibility have since been rewritten. If a student is retained on the recommendation of school officials, no eligibility penalty is levied. However, if parents go against the wishes of the school and elect to hold back their child in the 8th, 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, then the athlete loses his or her senior year of eligibility.

In the western Kentucky town of Mayfield, the retention of student athletes was once common. But the school system abandoned the tradition some years ago.

"The first and foremost intention was athletics," said Paul Leahy, the head football coach at Mayfield High School.

But he added that parents also made the choice in the belief that their children were too immature to move on to high school or college. By holding them back, he said, "we had kids come out of school feeling they were more prepared to take on the challenge of being on their own."

Repeating a grade also had another advantage, the coach said. "We felt many, many times it made the difference of getting a scholarship."

Rules and Values

Most state interscholastic-athletic associations have age-limit rules to guard against significant deviations in physical maturation. Many courts have upheld those rules even when students were retained as early as elementary school.

But students who were held back only one year--or occasionally two--can slip through, depending on the state and the date-of-birth cutoff.

The rules "have to do with making certain that the competition is equitable and to reduce the inherent risk of injury," said Helen Upton, an assistant director of the Kansas City, Mo.-based National Federation of State High School Associations.

But Ms. Upton said the kind of redshirting that the Louisiana school has been accused of has less to do with rules than with values. "I think that has to do with the values of the school system and the parents."

Though many of the state associations have firm rules for high school players, those regulations are in some cases trickier when it comes to middle or junior high school athletes.

In many places, high school students are eligible to play in as many as eight semesters or consecutive semesters. That limit would prohibit students held back during the high school years from playing an extra year.

Yet some states impose no similar rules governing 7th and 8th graders.

Arkansas amended its regulations several times during the past decade. Under current rules, a 7th or 8th grader can't compete for two years in the same grade. Whatever the athlete does in junior high, though, has no bearing on high school eligibility.

"Our schools have felt that in the junior high years certainly parents can take advantage of this and redshirt their youngsters," said Lamar Cole, the executive director of the Arkansas Activities Association, which governs interscholastic sports. "That's just going to be human nature."

Mr. White of the Ouachita Parish school board said the practice of holding back students there first came to his attention shortly after he was elected in 1990. At first, he said, he tried to persuade the administration to resolve the issue, but kept getting put off.

A and B Students

Meanwhile, the number of students involved mounted--from a handful annually to a class size.

Mr. White said he then sought a school board policy that would eliminate the practice. Last July, the board rejected the idea in a 5-2 vote. "It was an abdication of our responsibility as board members," Mr. White said recently. "We shouldn't be leaving decisions like this up to the parents."

Finally, he took his concerns to the state board, which invited him to speak on the subject at a meeting in January. A committee is expected to report back to the full board this spring.

Mr. White said teachers complained that the students who were held back were disruptive in class, and the parents of other students complained that their children were intimidated by their older peers.

But Mr. White also said he opposed the practice because the 17,680-student district cannot afford to re-educate students who do not need it.

"If a child is just barely passing and the child is not working out socially in the school, I have no problem with the parent wanting to hold him back," Mr. White said. But "most of the holdbacks are A and B students. Some are straight-A students."

'Land of the Giants'

In last year's group of holdbacks, two of the boys were repeating the 8th grade for the second time, and one of them had been a straight-A student the previous year, said one West Monroe teacher, who asked not to be identified.

In large part because they were already strong academically and were exposed to the same subject matter as in the previous year, the youths disrupted classes, according to the teacher.

The teacher said that one of her colleagues at West Monroe often joked before heading to class, "'I'm off now to the land of the giants."'

The situation also led to 12-year-olds and 16-year-olds being schooled together. "Socially," the teacher said, "they shouldn't have been mixing."

But she said she would not like to see the practice abandoned altogether because some students aren't emotionally prepared for high school. "Junior high is such a traumatic time in their lives. They're just pushed into growing up so quickly, and some don't have the chemistry to grow up that quickly."

In addition to the concerns of Mr. White and teachers, the practice has also brought complaints from parents.

One mother said her daughter was denied access to an algebra class because she had to compete with the older boys. The girl wanted to take Algebra I in the 8th grade, but the open slots went to the holdbacks, who she was told earned higher scores on a placement test.

The girl also lost a class election, according to her mother, because the holdbacks outnumbered the other students in her homeroom.

A friend's son sat on the bench throughout the football season because the older boys got to be starters.

"It's hurting my child," said the mother, who asked that she not be identified because of potential repercussions for her daughter. "It's dividing our town and our school and our parents."

Frank A. Hoffman, the district's director of personnel and an instructional supervisor, acknowledged that some of the students' parents held them back for athletic purposes and that more students have been held back in recent years.

"While athletics may be one of the purposes, many of the kids are not ready, not mature enough" for high school, he said.

The decision, however, is squarely in the parents' court. "We still feel that parents should have important input in their children's education," Mr. Hoffman said.

Others, however, suggest that coaches have swayed both students and their parents by saying that athletic success may depend on another year at the junior high level.

Retention More Harmful

Many experts on adolescents in the middle grades say that, regardless of athletic eligibility, retaining students because they are socially or emotionally immature is unwise.

Gwendolyn J. Cooke, the director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va., called the practice "unconscionable."

Research shows that, if anything, students are more likely to be harmed if they are held back and schooled with students who are younger than they are, Ms. Cooke said. Retention is also a major factor in increasing the risk that a child will drop out of school, she said.

High schools have become more sensitive to the needs of freshmen, Ms. Cooke said, and have taken steps to help them make the transition from the more protected environment of a middle or junior high school.

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