In Iowa, grades versus goals

How one school coped with a state rule that any athlete who fails a class gets benched.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

While walking near the library a few weeks ago, he stopped a student on a cellphone. "Aren't you supposed to be in my office?" Pause. "What happened with that?" The student snapped his phone shut and walked back toward the principal's office. Murray continued with his critique of the no-pass-no/fail rule. Athletics give students a connection to the school they don't get from the classroom, he says. "Every kid has to have a feeling of belonging. If you can connect with every kid, you have a chance of having every kid graduate."

Murray argues that the mandate hits struggling kids hardest, and there's some evidence to support his claim. The majority of high school athletes ruled ineligible this school year had grade point averages between 1.00 and 1.99, reported a survey commissioned by the Board of Education. But coaches and athletic directors say that's not reflective of the overall student athlete population.

William Watson, who conducted the survey, says today's high school athletes are, on average, more focused and better disciplined than their counterparts. "They have less time, so their time management improves and they achieve better," he says. Of 122 Iowa high schools that responded to Mr. Watson's survey, 112 said their athletes had a higher grade point average compared with the overall student population. "We all want the higher standards," says Watson, who is also the activities director at Urbandale High School in metro Des Moines. "Whether or not this is going to help kids achieve more is up for discussion."

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Before the no-pass rule, Iowa followed a less stringent "pass-four" standard, which meant a student had to pass four out of five classes to play sports. Many coaches and administrators preferred that approach. Nevada athletic director Dave McCaulley, who was overseeing the lunch line in the cafeteria on a recent Tuesday, recalls how he "saved" one troubled student under the old rule.

"There was not one person in this young man's family that had a high school diploma," says Mr. McCaulley, who also coaches Nevada's football team. In his senior year, "we got him connected with football. All of a sudden, he's showing up for school and making the honor roll," even though he wasn't passing every one of his classes, he says. "That young man graduated with a diploma." Under the new rule, McCaulley doesn't think he would have made it to graduation.

Critics rue some of the administrative burdens under the new rule, too. It's sometimes hard to get students academic assistance, because more of them are being suspended. The number of ineligible student athletes at 173 Iowa high schools went from 560 in the first semester of 2005-06 to 1,497 in the first semester of 2006-07, according to Watson's survey. "I would maybe talk to five kids a year about their grades," says McCaulley. "Now, I'm talking to 25 to 35 kids every term."

Moreover, the punishment doesn't start immediately after a student fails a class. The suspension applies to the students' main sport – the one they tried out for when they first got to high school. A football player who fails English in December, for example, won't serve his suspension until next September, when football starts again, even if he goes out for track in the spring. "It's created a bookkeeping nightmare," McCaulley says.

At a meeting in April, the Board of Education appointed a committee to study the impact of the no-pass rule. The board's Mr. Vincent, for one, believes holding athletes more accountable in the classroom will end up helping schools – and the nation. "If we're dealing with the world economy, which we are, we better get our expectations higher," he says.

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