Now, even D students can play

Concerned that too many kids are excluded, high schools loosen their eligibility standards for after-school activities

During his freshman year of high school, Richard Buckner's grade-point average slid from at 3.0 to a 1.9. In years past, that would have gotten him booted off the football squad at Custer High School here in Milwaukee.

"If it wasn't for football, I'd probably be out kickin' it," hanging out with friends, says the offensive and defensive tackle, now a sophomore who earns mostly B's and C's. "It gives me something to do instead of being out on the street, getting into trouble."

Milwaukee is among a number of school districts, especially those with shriveling inner-city sports programs, that have begun to reexamine their "no pass, no play" eligibility policies.

The shifting standards raise a fundamental question: Is participation in extracurricular activities a privilege, or an integral part of the educational process?

Students participating in sports in Milwaukee currently number 6,500, down from 10,000 in the 1970s. Although much of that decline is driven by demographics, few would deny that athletics in the public schools have imploded. Swim teams have disbanded. Cross-country has been left in the dust; track is barely hanging on. Gymnastics doesn't exist anymore.

As a result, the district launched a one-year pilot program for freshmen and sophomores, suspending a 2.0 GPA requirement for extracurricular activities. Milwaukee is the only district in Wisconsin with the 2.0 standard, but now its younger high-schoolers will only have to abide by the state policy, which grants eligibility to any student who carries a full load and fails no more than one class.

"Students who are involved in any kind of extracurricular activity generally do better in school - that's a given as far as I'm concerned," says Janis Doleschal, commissioner of interscholastic athletics for the Milwaukee Public Schools.

"By the end of the year, I think we're going to see increased attendance, increased grade-point averages, and, frankly, decreased involvement in criminal activity at the end of the school day," she says.

Nationwide momentum appears to be slowing for "no-pass, no-play" laws. Texas created the first such legislation in 1984 amid a general reform effort. Since then, 16 states have followed with similar statutes - but many others have consistently rejected the idea. In the past 15 years, Ohio legislators have resisted six attempts to raise the minimum GPA from 1.0 to 2.0, and last year the city of Cincinnati rolled back its requirement to 1.0.

On the other hand, there are cities and states where the 2.0 standard appears to be working. In Grand Rapids, Mich., the more-stringent requirement has been in effect for 17 years, bolstered by a support system that includes study halls, peer counseling, and weekly checks of grades.

Other locales have staked out compro-mises. Arkansas passed a 2.0 eligibility law in 1993, but the dropout rate soared, along with gang participation, teen pregnancy, and other problems - particularly in Little Rock. Subsequent legislation retained the 2.0 standard but allowed students at risk of not meeting the requirement to maintain extracurricular eligibility in exchange for receiving two hours of tutoring per week.

"It's a mixed picture right now, but one thing is increasingly clear: One size does not fit all when it comes to eligibility," says O.L. Davis Jr., a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas, Austin, There is little research, he says, to support claims made on either side of the issue.

The general consensus is that extracurricular activities foster self-esteem, motivation, and academic success. But proponents of stricter eligibility requirements argue that schools are primarily about learning, not playing, and that athletes failing to achieve a C standard should be hitting the books, not the practice field.

"Has it really come to this - that we're going to throw up our hands and declare athletics is more important than academics?" asks Kevin Matthews, director of diversity programs at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston's Northeastern University.

"When you establish a C average as the eligibility requirement, you're providing an incentive for a student to do better. Take it away, and you reward a lack of effort," he says.

In Milwaukee, though, there's been the matter of a double standard. Eligibility rules that are stricter for inner-city schools than suburban ones are simply unfair, say advocates of the new plan.

"Very few of these kids have two parents," says Barry Zmudzinski, head football coach at Custer High School. "A kid goes home and says, 'I'm having trouble with reading' or 'I'm having trouble with math,' and no one there can help him. [A GPA of] 2.0 may not sound like much, but with what these kids are facing ..., it can be tough to achieve consistently."

Standing on Custer High's football practice field, Coach Zmudzinski steps over to a gym bag, retrieves a binder as thick as a phone book, and begins thumbing through the pages filled with X's, O's, and crisscross arrows. "Is playing sports really a reward, or is it a learning situation?" he asks. "Isn't it as much a part of education as sitting in a science class?

"Take a look at this," he says. "It's our playbook. This is what these kids have to learn. Now is that education? I darn well think it is."

Loosening eligibility rules doesn't mean administrators are lowering expectations, supporters insist. Indeed, each school is to have a custom-designed academic-assistance program - including such elements as tutoring, required study halls, teacher conferences, and daily report cards.

The new rules have already begun to revive the playing fields in Milwaukee. A soccer team has formed at one school, a cross-country team at another, and coaches of existing fall sports are reporting larger rosters.

Moreover, administrators are cheering the intangible benefits they see - the reawakening of school spirit and students' sense of identity.

"Athletics is often the glue that holds a school together," says Zmudzinski, as an assistant coach barks commands to the players.

"No matter what color you are, no matter whether you're male or female, you can get up on that bandwagon and say, 'I'm a Custer Cougar and we were champions last year and we're going to be champions this year.' "

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