Cincinnati high school math teacher Jill Ruby is a second coach of sorts for a group of students who are already answerable to the adults who school them on the techniques, rules, and strategies of the sport they play.
At Hughes STEM High School, she has a caseload of about 30 athletes whose grades and attendance patterns she checks on a weekly basis. If any of them have an F or two D-level grades, she devises a plan with them to pull up those marks—including attending after-school study sessions, prompting them to communicate with their teachers about making up missed work, or putting them in touch with someone who can tutor them on a tough literature concept.
In her coaching role, Ruby has helped students apply for colleges and even fill out the FAFSA.
“It has been the highlight of my year so far, getting to connect with kids and getting them to grow academically and persevere through the struggles they’ve been having,” Ruby said.
Each of the Cincinnati district’s 14 high schools with athletic departments now has a teacher, administrator, or counselor who serves in a role similar to Ruby’s. The program, in effect, offers for secondary students the same type of developmental support common for college athletes who must meet eligibility requirements to play.
“We’ve got a lot of students in the district that are battling different things on a daily basis, and the support they need sometimes is just one more person that’s really there to care for them, support them, hear them out,” said Joshua Hardin, the athletics manager for the 36,000-student Cincinnati district. “Athletics is a way for a lot of students in the district to be connected to the school and community and to feel like they have an opportunity to have their thing.”
‘No Pass, No Play’
Now in its second full year in the Cincinnati district, the program, dubbed the Academic and Athletic Accountability Pathway, is an extra layer of support for students whose prowess on the athletic field tends to get a brighter spotlight than their academics. In addition to the personalized support, students who play sports in the Queen City get a free boot camp to prep for the ACT. The program is a new wrinkle on what’s now an established part of secondary sports—eligibility.
In 1984, Texas instituted the first, which requires students to pass all their courses to participate in sports or extracurricular activities. Some 30-odd states —often, as in Ohio, leaving it up to local districts to specify the academic measure and penalties. Some districts work attendance or conduct into the calculus in addition to a grade or course-completion measure. The penalties for missing the cutoffs range from being benched for a couple of weeks through several semesters.
Further complicating matters, state high school athletic associations also set benchmarks that can effectively carry the same weight as state law. That’s the case in Ohio, where the Ohio High School Athletic Association requires high school students to carry and pass five one-credit courses. Many Ohio districts have interpreted that as at least a D or 1.0 GPA.
Research generally suggests that no-pass-no-play policies do shape students’ attendance patterns and grades.
“There is no doubt about the fact that if you require students to be eligible to play on a team, they are more serious about their studies; there is no doubt about the fact that they are more motivated,” said Angela Lumpkin, a professor in the department of kinesiology and sports management at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. “If you have to pass your algebra class to play on a football team, you’ll find a way to pass your algebra class.”
But it’s far less clear exactly how stringent the standard should be. Does too low send a bad signal about the relative value of academics? Does too high encourage cheating or push students who mainly attend school for athletics out the door?
Such questions are topics of perennial debate, and as a result, any movement in districts’ eligibility standards attracts scrutiny. (Both the Dayton and the Stow-Munroe Falls districts in Ohio kicked up controversy in recent years when they proposed lowering their eligibility GPAs.)
Cincinnati, like many other Ohio districts, had tried to strike a balance between too high and too low. The school board had set the bar higher than many districts at 2.0—a C average. And though it had established free tutoring tables after school for students needing more attention, what was missing was some coherent system for motivating students to pull up weak grades.
When Hardin, the district’s athletics manager, started looking at achievement data among athletes, he found some troubling patterns. Most of his athletes cleared the 1.0 GPA bar, but fewer were meeting the 2.0 mark. That wasn’t just academically troubling news for players with college aspirations—it also meant that those vying for athletic scholarships could be in for a rude awakening. The National Collegiate Athletic Association requires at least a 2.3 GPA for Division I athletes and a 2.2 for Division II.
For the pilot year, in 2018-19, Hardin cobbled together funding to select and pay the AAA Pathway coaches a stipend similar to the ones that athletic coaches were receiving. And he brought on Stephanie Price, who had worked in athletic development at the University of Northern Kentucky, to design a training manual for the course and run the program. Price meets with each coach twice each quarter, offering assistance in how they can support each of their charges.
Ruby, only in her second year of teaching, had already found out that attending her students’ games helped her build relationships with them. Now, as an AAA Pathway coach, she has another way to connect. A lot of what she does is more like counseling, she said, trying to empower students to address the root of a low grade—for instance, how to tell a teacher that they didn’t understand something and need extra help.
“You can see a kid walk out [of our meetings] almost standing a bit taller and thinking, ‘OK, I can have an adult conversation and something good can come out of it,’ ” she said.
And although other districts also offer help for athletes, “I feel like the consistency is really big in what makes this program different,” Ruby said.
For all that, the basic idea of supports for athletes does pull from a higher education model that’s had its share of scandal—most notably in 2014 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Independent reports there found athletes were enrolled in allegedly fake “paper” classes to maintain their eligibility.
But Jerry Butler, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Shroder High School, thinks the opposite is true in Cincinnati’s version. Before AAA Pathways, he said, when grade checks were done quarterly, a student could play nearly 10 weeks of football before anyone checked his or her grades. And athletic coaches and building athletic directors held all the cards.
“It was like the Wild, Wild West—basically anything went,” said Butler, a 27-year veteran and former athletic coach. “You need an extra set of eyes to just hold everyone accountable.”
Under AAA Pathway, Butler said, he’s even pulled rank on athletic coaches, demanding that a student sit for a study session instead of going to practice. And students know they have to care about their schoolwork if only because a low score means Butler will be coming to check on them.
“It’s good for me, because at times I do slip on my work,” said Tommy Young, a sophomore Butler coaches at Shroder High who wrestles and plays football.
Tommie Steed III, a sophomore at Woodward Career & Technical High School is aiming high. While he’d like to win a track and field scholarship to college, he says his goal this year is to get a 4.0 in his academic classes.
“I don’t think people understand the way we have to balance sports and education,” he said. “It affects your grades, and your grade is what is going to get you into college, not sports.”
The program clocks in at about $100,000 for 2019-20, not extravagant but also not nothing at a time of tight school budgets. But the school board and other departments have been generally supportive.
“We do at times hear comments in response to other clubs—arts and music—and my response is always, I support extracurriculars for the district as a whole,” said Hardin, adding that he’s has been talking with his counterparts in those divisions about expanding the program to encompass them.
AAA Pathway is too new to have much data behind it, but Price, the program leader, ticks off some successes, including three students who were flagged for help through the program last school year and who this year qualified for Division II football scholarships in college. Coaches like Butler are integrating the support into other initiatives, including a social-emotional development program for boys.
“Anecdotally, we have AAA coaches who are in the second year who say the culture is changing. Student athletes are holding themselves accountable and others accountable,” Price said. “And we’re not losing kids to eligibility problems—especially early on.”
As to whether such an approach could or should be replicated in other districts, Lumpkin is of two minds. She said she’s for anything that supports students to do their best academically but not if districts start encouraging less rigorous coursework or cheating the way some colleges have.
Although there is far less money at stake in high school athletics than at the collegiate level, the outlays can still be considerable, she noted. (Some Texas districts have built high school football stadiums costing upwards of $70 million.)
“It’s not that big in high schools, no, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be,” Lumpkin said. “To me, one of the kind of revealing facts is that school districts have started calling them ‘student athletes.’ High school adolescents should be students, period, and they should have lots of opportunities for extracurriculars.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Academic Coaches Keep High School Athletes in Play