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Published: Friday, April 25, 2008, 10:18 a.m.

More stringent state academic standards coming for prep athletes?

  • Judy Stanley / The Herald

When a running back gets the football eight times and loses three fumbles, it's a disaster.
A baseball shortstop who flubs three of every eight ground balls gets benched.
Going 3-for-8 on layups is a nightmare for a basketball player.
But a high school student-athlete can have the same failure rate in school -- flunking three of eight classes -- and still be considered academically proficient enough to play sports, according to Washington Interscholastic Activities Association standards.
But that may soon change.
Today, the WIAA representative assembly -- the association's policy-making body -- will consider several amendments to its handbook, including a revision that, beginning with the 2008-2009 school year, would disqualify student-athletes who are failing more than one class.
A special committee researched the issue for about two years, said Mike Colbrese, executive director of the WIAA, and recommended the change.
An explanation accompanying the proposed amendment reads: "With over 80 percent of WIAA member schools implementing a more restrictive academic standard (than the WIAA minimums), this new rule is more in line with current educational practices."
Allen Jefferson, the athletic director at Arlington High School and a member of the WIAA representative assembly, said that based on talks he's had with ADs from around the state, there is a good chance the amendment will pass.
It would be the first change to WIAA academic standards in more than 20 years, Colbrese said.
A starting point
Under current WIAA standards, an athlete who is passing three of five classes, four of six classes or five of eight classes in a given semester or trimester is eligible. To put it another way, earning three Fs and five Ds is good enough. The WIAA does not stipulate a minimum grade-point average (GPA).
Most of the state's school districts use the WIAA standards -- including periodic grade checks and monitoring academic performance -- as a starting point, then add more stringent requirements. More than 80 percent of WIAA member schools add requirements, according to a WIAA survey.
"It's a format," Colbrese said. "The (WIAA) rules are the minimum. Schools are allowed to cater to their students and classes they offer."
The system gives a voice to school districts that face a variety of challenges and factors, Colbrese said.
WIAA academic rules are comparable to other states, he said.
In Oregon, for example, athletes can fail three of eight classes and be eligible, according to the Oregon School Activities Association handbook. But Oregon allows athletes who take six or fewer classes to fail no more than one; in Washington they can fail two and remain eligible.
Setting standards
If the amendment passes, it will force changes at some schools around the state, but not among local schools surveyed by The Herald. All currently meet or exceed the proposed requirements.
Deciding how high to set the bar at a particular school involves listening to a number of voices, said Nicki Luper, Oak Harbor High's first-year athletic director. Luper previously oversaw athletics at Sultan High School.
At Class 2A Sultan, Luper put together a panel of parents, students, coaches and non-coaching teachers to help her come up with the best policies and present them to the school board for approval.
This year she plans to do the same thing at Oak Harbor, a 4A school. "You kind of hash it out," Luper said.
Key factors, she said, include school size, the unique needs of the student population and the availability of classes.
To be eligible at Oak Harbor, athletes must take a minimum of four classes and must pass all four.
The frequency of grade checks varies greatly. Some local schools check every week.
The Edmonds School District checks every six weeks.
Consisting of four high schools (Edmonds-Woodway, Lynnwood, Meadowdale and Mountlake Terrace), the Edmonds district allows athletes to be failing one class to still compete.
Julie Stroncek, interim Edmonds School District co-athletic director, said the standards haven't changed significantly in at least 16 years, which is how long she has worked for the district. One explanation for the more lenient policy, she said, is it encourages athletes to take challenging, upper-level classes; even if they struggle in a particularly difficult subject, it won't make them ineligible.
Raising the bar even higher
Winning is fun, but it's not everything, Landon Porter said.
"I became a coach because I want to have a positive impact on their lives," said Porter, Lynnwood High School's head boys basketball coach the past eight seasons. "If kids don't play basketball after high school, that's OK, but they can succeed in life."
Porter, who recently resigned to take a coaching job in New Mexico, didn't have a great career win-loss record at Lynnwood (60-114). But his players had impressive scholastic success. This past season, no Royal received an F and the team's cumulative 3.2 GPA yielded a WIAA Distinguished Team Award.
To ensure his team focused on grades, Porter raised the ante. On top of standards required by the WIAA and the district, he demanded players pass every class. If not, they didn't play.
Sometimes the pressure to win overpowers a coach's desire to make athletes more academically accountable, Porter said. But he used the "No Fs, no playing time" policy the past four seasons and still had some competitive teams.
It works, Porter said, because athletes want playing time and don't want to disappoint teammates.
"In a lot of ways I see sports as a great motivator for these kids," Porter said. "If that's going to help them get their work done, that's what I'm going to do."
Few high school athletes receive college sports scholarships or ever turn pro. John Matusak said that reality helps explain the high academic standards at Archbishop Murphy High, a private Catholic school in south Everett.
Athletes must pass all classes with a minimum 2.0 GPA, said Matusak, the school's vice principal. It's more demanding than it seems: At most schools anything below 60 percent is a failing grade, but at Murphy, students must score at least 67.2 percent to pass.
Murphy demands a lot of its students, including athletes, to ensure they succeed in college, Matusak said.
"Really, it's about the classroom," he said.
Tools for success
Schools use different ways to monitor student-athletes who struggle with grades.
At Arlington High School, where athletes must pass all classes and grade checks occur every two weeks, there is academic probation and an academic contract. Other schools in the area use similar policies.
Arlington athletes receiving an F are put on probation. It means the athlete can practice but can't play in games. If the athlete raises the grade to a passing mark, probation ends after one week.
An academic contract is used for Arlington athletes who have a C-minus in any class. After settling on a plan with a teacher for improving the grade, students' parents must sign the contract. Progress ends the contract. Lack of progress leads to probation and possible ineligibility.
Lake Stevens High athletes must pass all their classes and have at least a 2.0 GPA. But the school's Study Table program gives students who haven't achieved the standards a chance to stay eligible.
For instance, athletes who had no more than one F and a GPA between 1.74 and 2.0 in the previous grading cycle remain eligible if they attend the closely monitored Study Table two hours per week for six weeks.
The program helped Zach Muth, a junior who plays for the Lake Stevens varsity boys soccer team.
As a freshman, Muth said, he struggled mightily with grades. At one point, he was in danger of missing the entire C-team soccer season.
He desperately wanted to play, so he made an agreement with his coach, Scott Flanders, and Lake Stevens athletic director Ed Bailey. Muth went to Study Table an hour every day. Gradually, his grades improved and he got back on the field.
He wants to attend Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon and own a business someday. The desire to play varsity soccer got Muth back on track, he said.
"In order to get to that level I had to really work on my schoolwork," he said. "I started thinking about what I'm going to do with my future."
Writer Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.
School-by-school comparison
Here is a sample of local high schools’ academic requirements for student-athletes. Athletes can sometimes compete or at least practice if they fail to meet requirements but their progress is more closely monitored and they must demonstrate improvement or face removal from the team.
Schools/districtsBasic requirementsGrade check frequency
Archbishop MurphyPass all classes + 2.0 GPA5 weeks
Arlington Passall classes2 weeks
CedarcrestPass all classesWeekly
CoupevilleLower than a C in any class/eligibility contract2 weeks
DarringtonPass all classesWeekly
Edmonds S.D.No more than 1 F; if taking 4 classes must pass all6 weeks
Everett S.D.Pass all classes3 weeks
Granite FallsNo more than 1 D or 1 F + 1.7 GPA3 weeks
King’sPass all classes + 2.3 GPA4 weeks
Lake StevensPass all classes + 2.0 GPA6 weeks
LakewoodPass all classes + 1.7 GPA2-5 weeks
Marysville-PilchuckPass all classes3 weeks
MonroePass all classes + 2.0 GPA6 weeks
Mukilteo S.D.Pass all classes + 2.0 GPA5 weeks
Oak HarborPass all classes (must take at least 4)5 weeks
Shoreline S.D.Pass all classes (must take at least 4)9 weeks
SnohomishEarn at least a C in all classes4.5 weeks
South WhidbeyNo more than 1 F + 2.0 GPA6 weeks
StanwoodPass all classes + 2.0 GPA7 weeks
SultanPass all classes + 2.0 GPA3-4 weeks

Note: Based on what is required in the current semester/trimester. Academic performance in previous semesters/trimesters also impacts eligibility.

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