L.A. gets tough on halfbacks, Hamlets with low grades

One of Moses Green's most talented sprinters is sitting in the bleachers this track season at Washington Preparatory High School. That's because he got three F's on his last report card.

''He's a nice kid'' and he wants to run, says Mr. Green, the school's athletic director, so the speedster shouldn't have much trouble getting his grades up by next year.

Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles school district dropped thousands of students from after-school activities - roughly a fifth of all those who participated - because their midterm grades weren't high enough.

The school board's new policy was a common one 12 to 15 years ago: Students must hold a C average and no failing work in order to play sports or participate in other school activities outside the classroom.

During the 1970s, these standards lost ground, as schools focused on the social aspects of education. But in the past year or so, says Scott Thompson, executive directory of the American Association of Secondary School Principals, academic standards have started to make a comeback.

Washington Prep is an example of what other schools will face as they crack the academic whip, because the all-black, inner-city school has had its own C average policy since last September.

Arnold Butler, a counselor at Washington Prep, says some of the students who are now ineligible want to play football so badly next fall that they're already going to their teachers to get help in boosting their grades. ''This is the beauty of it,'' he says.

Critics of the school board's new policy say activities like sports actually help students do better in school.

Says Warren Brown, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations: ''The 2.0 [C average] standard helps people beat their academic chests, but it doesn't help kids.''

Nevertheless, putting academics first is how Principal George McKenna has tried to breathe vigor into this once-troubled campus over the past several years.

''I'm in favor of raising academic standards,'' Mr. McKenna says. But he greets the school-board policy with mixed feelings. ''I have a problem with telling kids to get C's and not providing the support systems.

''If you have not kept the library open as long as the gymnasium,'' he adds, ''then you're not supporting the kids in their effort to get C's.''

Washington Prep teachers are available for tutoring every day after school and from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Students here have homework every night, and teachers call home on the first day a student is absent from class.

Now - although the neighborhood is the home of a notorious gang - the climate here is visibly peaceful and happy. Attendance is up, test scores are up, and morale is high, McKenna says.

The library, however, is still closed after 4 p.m. and on weekends, while the lights in the gym are on until 10 p.m. and on Saturdays.

McKenna says he also has reservations about cutting students out of music, drama, or debate - activities more closely related to academics than are sports.

Sean Hector, an outgoing senior, was walking down the hall two weeks ago when a teacher stopped him and told him he wouldn't be performing in the Los Angeles school district's annual Shakespeare Festival, which was held last Saturday.

For the past two years, Sean has won regional Shakespeare festivals at a local state college. Now he won't be singing, dancing, or acting for the rest of the year.

Although he has a C average, Sean got an F in expository composition on his midterm report card. He says he hadn't heard of the no-fail clause in the new policy. ''It came out of nowhere,'' he says.

''It really hurt me, because performing is my life,'' he says. It hurt more when he found out that talent scouts from major recording companies in the area would be attending some of the spring performances.

''I haven't cried since I was 12 years old,'' he says. ''Last night I cried.''

Rita Walters is the school-board member who sponsored the C average policy, and she stands by it. ''If a student is not doing well in what is his primary reason for being in school, then he needs to change priorities.''

The new standards can be a powerful motivator, she says - not just for students, but for encouraging changes in the school system as well.

McKenna concurs. ''Without a support system [to help students improve their grades], all you've done is point your finger at the victim and say, 'Get better.' ''

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