Published Online: May 29, 2002
Published in Print: May 29, 2002, as Ark. Poised to Again Require Minimum GPA for Sports

Ark. Poised to Again Require Minimum GPA for Sports

Johnny Johnson has seen it before: Athletes lose interest in school after they lose academic eligibility to play sports.

That is why Mr. Johnson, the athletic director for the Little Rock school district, and other educators and coaches around Arkansas are speaking out against the state school board's decision to reinstate a policy that requires at least a 2.0 GPA for participation in sports and other extracurricular activities.

And they want to keep a remedial program that the state board also voted this month to drop as part of the new policy. Both changes are expected to go into effect following a 30-day comment period and a final vote next month. While eligibility rules tend to be a local issue, some other states, such as Texas, also have tried to set standards. And while state and local policies have fluctuated over the years, national experts say that the general trend these days is toward tougher academic requirements. For the past five years, students in Arkansas could take part in sports and other activities even if they fell below a C average, provided they enrolled in the Supplemental Instruction Program—essentially 100 hours a week of tutoring—that the state set up when it relaxed the 2.0 requirement.

But critics contend that the SIP program lacked adequate enforcement. They point out that students could remain indefinitely in tutoring without raising their grades, and still play sports.

Perhaps the program's biggest black eye came last year, when Little Rock Central High School was forced to give up its 2001 state basketball title after state officials discovered that a player on the team had routinely missed his mandatory remedial classes.

Lost Opportunity?

Last summer, the state board tried to abolish the tutoring program, but kept it alive after educators rallied to its defense. But this month the board came back with an 8- 1 vote to kill it.

"We're disappointed," Mr. Johnson said. "You're going to see a drop in participation."

The board explained its latest move, which is open to public comment before the June vote, as an important step in fostering high academic standards. "We want to stress academics over everything else," said Robert Hackler, the chairman of the state board of education.

But Luke Gordy, the sole dissenter on the board, worries about what will happen when students are denied the chance to participate in activities that often keep them engaged in school.

He favored reforming the Supplemental Instruction Program by limiting the time students could stay in it to two semesters. He also wanted to hand the program over to the Arkansas Activities Association, which governs interscholastic sports and other extracurricular activities in the state.

"The kids who will be most affected will be the underprivileged kids," Mr. Gordy said.

As in most states, Arkansas' debate over where to set the bar for eligibility to play sports and take part in other student activities has a long history.

Motivating Factor

An influential study from Arkansas State University six years ago found that in 1996, 41,000 students in grades 7-12 in Arkansas could not participate in public school activities because of the required minimum grade point average of 2.0.

The researchers also found the policy disproportionately affected male and minority students. The study played a major role in spurring the state school board to loosen the GPA standard five years ago.

Sammie Jamell, the director of the Supplemental Instruction Program at Little Rock Fair High School, worries that turning back the clock is misguided. "My experience has been that sports is what keeps some students in school," she said.

Around the country, school policymakers have long grappled with the issue of minimum academic standards for students who want to play sports or take part in other activities.

A month before the state board's vote in Arkansas, the Davenport, Iowa, school board moved in a different direction by reversing a decade-old policy of requiring students to maintain a C average to participate in extracurricular activities.

Local Issue

A committee that evaluated the impact of the requirement in the 16,831-student district found the policy had in most cases not acted as an incentive for improving students' grades. Now, Davenport students with GPAs below 2.0 can join in extracurricular activities while taking part in mandatory study periods.

Texas lawmakers attracted national attention in 1986 when they passed a "no pass, no play" law for students participating in athletics and other activities. In the football-crazed state, the move was a bombshell for many coaches.

"The law was met with moaning and gnashing of teeth," said Bill Farney, the director of the University Interscholastic League, which oversees most high school athletics in Texas. Since then, the law, which was revised in seven years ago to soften restrictions on eligibility that were seen as overly punitive, has been embraced by more coaches.

One of the challenges facing states is that national guidelines on minimum standards for participation in extracurricular activities don't exist. "It's really a state and local issue," said Bruce Howard, the director of communications for the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis, Ind.

The trend, though, has been for states to adopt more stringent academic standards for athletic participation, he said.

"We would hope that kids are not put out of activities," Mr. Howard added, "but we don't want kids failing classes and playing sports."

Vol. 21, Issue 38, Pages 16,20

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