In Iowa, grades versus goals
How one school coped with a state rule that any athlete who fails a class gets benched.
In this community one hour north of Des Moines, which an official sign says is the "26th best small town in America," there are two things people always know: the prevailing price of a bushel of corn and how the local soccer team is doing. True, Nevada High School fields a plucky girls softball team, and football is always followed closely here in the Midwest.Skip to next paragraph
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But it is the Cubs soccer team that keeps the trophy case well-stocked. So at the beginning of the school year, when one of the team's stars was suspended for poor academic performance, it reverberated through the locker-lined hallways here.
Eventually, Andrew Lodenstein, the team's defensive captain, returned, and the Cubs went on to win another conference championship. But the no-pass/no-play rule that kept him on the sidelines continues to divide this town – and indeed, much of the state – in what has become one of the nation's most impassioned debates over academics versus athletics.
Underlying the controversy is a stricture the State Board of Education passed last year after almost a decade of argument. It mandates that any athlete who receives an "F" on his or her report card is prohibited from playing sports for 20 school days.
To critics of the prominence of athletics in American society, that may seem like paltry punishment. But, in fact, it established Iowa as having one of the strictest high school athletic eligibility requirements in the country. Fewer than 17 states maintain any kind of athletic eligibility to begin with, according to the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Of those, Arizona, Ohio, and now Iowa are the only ones with a "one F and you're benched rule." "We're in challenging times, and we need to create challenges for our students," says Gene Vincent, president of the Iowa Board of Education. "We need to set an example."
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Nevada high has long had a strong soccer program – their team plays in an off-campus lighted stadium – and this year's team had a great crop of seniors, including Lodenstein. When he was benched, it wasn't the first time he'd received an "F" – his teachers describe him as the kind of student who can do well if he focuses – but it was the first time under the new rule.
In some ways, his soccer suspension brought the team and school closer together. "People really stepped up," says Matt Smith, a Cubs midfielder. "While Andrew was walking down the hallways, people would stop to make sure he was going to class and that he'd got his homework done."
Smith says most students at Nevada high, which graduated a class of 120 on May 27, reacted positively to the rule. "When it comes down to crunch time with school, and the season comes down to the wire, you know you need to make the grade to play," he says. "It's going to motivate people."
Nicole Wilson, a junior at Nevada and a pitcher on the softball team, agrees. "A lot more kids are going to worry about their grades when it comes to crunch time," she says. "People are going to take school more seriously than their sports."
Yet not everyone likes the mandate. Critics think the rule penalizes students who might otherwise find athletics a path to improving their performance in the classroom. "It's the at-risk kids that got nailed," says Nevada principal Ray Murray, who has spent almost 30 years as a teacher and school administrator. "For the student that needs the sport – for whom it's a struggle to get here everyday, let alone pass their courses – it's just something to be with the team."
Mr. Murray, a tall, husky man, is the kind of principal who would do well as a drill sergeant. He walks Nevada's halls alerting students to their next class, to big projects coming due, to scholarships. He asks about the teams.