Pilot program pairs advisors, athletes

High school athletes in Henrico County soon could face tougher academic standards, but those who currently fall below the new threshold won't have to look far to find someone ready to help them boost their grades.

The Henrico School Board is moving closer to the implementation of a mandatory 2.0 grade point average for high school athletes – a plan that could take effect officially for the 2014-15 school year and one that is a significant increase from the Virginia High School League standards, which require only that students maintain a 0.7 GPA in order to compete in sanctioned sports.

A key component of Henrico's plan is the expansion of a pilot program that would provide a stipend for the creation of an academic advisor position at each high school specifically to work with athletes. The program is being tested this school year at Varina and Highland Springs high schools, as well as Elko, Fairfield and John Rolfe middle schools.

Funding for the pilot program was allocated by the Henrico Board of Supervisors, at the request of Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson.

School system officials told administrators at each of the five schools to be creative and try solutions that they believed would work in their own environments, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Eric Jones said.

"It was important [for us] to get an idea of what works best," he said.

At Varina High School, administrators found that half of the 225 fall athletes had at least one D or F at the first interim grade report of the school year. They developed a system targeting those students for improvement, whereby the students first would receive warnings, then probation from their sports and finally suspension if their GPAs did not improve, Principal Tracie Omohundro said. School officials offered students tutoring help and opportunities to earn extra credit as incentives to improve their grades.

Despite initial hesitation from students and their parents, the system made a quick difference: 71 percent of the athletes were fully eligible within just two weeks of the interim grades, while another 9 percent received a warning and the others entered a probationary phase, Omohundro said.

At Fairfield Middle School, officials determined that the football team had the greatest need among fall teams, so they gathered the team and brought in a guest speaker to discuss the importance of academics as they prepared for high school athletics. During the winter season, the school has held study halls every two weeks for athletes.

"They're doing it as a team, which makes a big difference to them," said Megan Walton, a counselor who is also serving as Fairfield's academic advisor.

The results: About 12 percent of athletes in each season who were receiving Ds or Fs improved to at least a C average.

But challenges remain, according to Varina's academic advisor, English teacher Emily Stains.

"We need to continue to hold students accountable across the board from one season to the next," she said. And we need to continue to get buy-in from coaches – they are as excited about the program as we are."

Stains told the School Board that establishing benchmark academic goals for middle school athletes would be critical, so that they enter high school with a clear understanding of the requirements they'll face.

Board members agreed but expressed different opinions about whether a similar, structured program is necessary at the middle school level in the future or whether a general emphasis on academics and expectations would be sufficient.

An attainable goal

In consideration of their new proposal for athletes, school system officials studied all the high school athletes who played sports during the fall season in 2012 and determined that 89 percent of them already had GPAs of 2.0 or higher. Director of Secondary Education David Myers told the School Board last month that elevating the remaining 11 percent of athletes above the 2.0 threshold is a goal that is attainable – much in the same way the division has lowered its dropout rate and increased its on-time graduation rate.

"I think it's because of our putting a real focus [on those initiatives]," he said. "I think we can do the same type of thing for athletes. . . but with the understanding that there are going to be some bumps along the way.

Implementation of the stricter academic standards would not come without criticism – much of which board members have already heard in the past several weeks since the idea was made public. One of the most frequent arguments against the change is that some students who struggle academically, who live in poverty or who lack parental support at home are motivated to remain in school primarily as a result of sports – and that requiring them to raise their GPAs in order to keep playing could cause them to drop out or lose whatever academic motivation remains.

Fairfield District School Board member Lamont Bagby doesn't buy that line. During a work session late last year, Bagby said that parents or others who offer such an argument should consider the bigger picture.

"The question I would ask of them is, What do you want of this child?" Bagby said.

Three Chopt District board member Diana Winston agreed.

"It's not about, How is this going to hurt a child as an athlete?" Winston said. "We're trying to help them as students. We are trying to take very seriously our responsibility to help educate them first."

Funding the academic advisor duties at each high school, at a total cost of $40,000 in the coming school year, is a significant step in that process, the board believes.

Bagby is convinced that combining those positions with the additional learning opportunities already available in the county's high schools, every student athlete will have the tools needed to achieve in the classroom.

"I am Henrico High School's biggest fan," said Bagby, who graduated from and and taught at the school, "but I would much prefer us losing a couple of games as opposed to seeing those students next to me [failing to make grades].

"There are resources that young people may not be taking advantage of."

School system officials initially proposed a four-year phased approach to the new grade point average requirements – during which no sanctions would have been taken next school year, though athletes would have been required to earn a minimum 1.6 GPA during the following year and a minimum 1.8 GPA during the subsequent year before the final 2.0 GPA requirement took effect for good in 2016-17.

But School Board members agreed that the program should be implemented sooner, so the new proposal – scheduled to be formalized at the board's Feb. 14 meeting – would establish a two-year phase-in. During the 2013-14 school year, the 2.0 GPA requirement would become the standard, though athletes who failed to reach it would not be banned from competing.

But beginning in 2014-15, the standard would apply, and a student who did not carry a cumulative high school GPA of at least 2.0 – or a minimum 2.0 GPA in the semester immediately prior to his or her athletic season – would be ineligible to play.
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