Feature

Righting the Balance in the Athletics-Academics Equation

Given more pressing concerns, superintendents don’t often get involved in overseeing interscholastic sports in their districts by Kate Beem

Sports have played an important part in Terry Grier’s life, no doubt about it. As a high school student in Fairmont, N.C., Grier lettered in four sports. After college, he became a teacher, then a coach, then a high school principal. Eventually he joined the ranks of superintendents, serving districts from Sacramento, Calif., to Akron, Ohio, the town that delivered LeBron James from high school to the National Basketball Association.

 

But when he returned home to North Carolina in 2000 to guide the Guilford County School District in Greensboro and High Point, Grier, 54, inherited a sporting scandal that eventually rocked the state and shocked almost anyone who heard about it.

Following up on a dismissive comment made by a student in one of the district’s 14 high schools, Grier discovered some coaches in that school were consistently fielding ineligible athletes on teams that went on to compete in statewide tournaments. Coaches had asked teachers to change students’ grades and attendance records to cover up the infractions.

Grier told his school board they had to report the rule-breaking to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. And they were honor-bound to do something else, he insisted to the cheers of some board members and the chagrin of others: Hire an outside law firm to investigate whether such cover-ups were happening in the other 13 high schools in the district, which with almost 70,000 students is the state’s third largest.

Eventually, the investigation revealed that 11 of Guilford County’s 14 high schools had fielded a total of 28 teams and four cheerleading squads with students who had missed more than the allowable number of school days. Under North Carolina rules, students who exceed 13.5 days of absence in a semester can’t compete in sports the following semester.

Most infractions resulted from sloppy recordkeeping, Grier says. But not all.

“Some coaches knew they were playing kids who’d missed 70, 80 days of school,” Grier says. “I just decided we’re not going to deal with that. We’re not going to have that here.”

Clear Priorities
Guilford County’s revelation meant the school district forfeited more than 100 games, returned more than $26,000 in playoff revenue and paid $15,500 in fines. Two athletic directors lost their jobs. The district fined several other athletic directors, coaches and principals.

Most school board members supported Grier’s decision, but he took some heat from angry parents. And his colleagues from other school districts weren’t too happy with him either, Grier says. After the Guilford County news broke, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association requested a statewide review of high school athletic records. Forty-eight schools eventually reported using ineligible players in a wide array of sports.

“We want to make sure we are students first, athletes second,” Grier says as he describes his philosophy. “I’m very competitive. I want to win. If I played a blind man in checkers, I’d want to win. I just won’t cheat to do it.”

Ultimate Authority
Sports are big business in America these days, and not just at the professional and college levels. It’s everywhere.

The discriminating television viewer can watch Little League games on cable channels, and ESPN regularly broadcasts high school football and basketball games matching schools from across the country. Youngsters as young as 10 travel widely on club teams to play in hyped-up tournaments with their frenzied parents sporting team colors and yelling encouragement or barbs from the bleachers. High school booster clubs raise big coffers to build stadiums many college teams would be proud to call home.

So it’s only natural that school district leaders should feel the pressure, experts say, of parents bent on their sons and daughters gaining playing time at all costs in the hopes they can become the next Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods.

 

While many superintendents cede oversight of interscholastic sports to athletic directors and coaches, Grier’s case suggests the superintendent bears the ultimate responsibility to make sure everyone follows the rules and that no one loses sight of a school’s No. 1 goal: educating students. True, sports and extracurricular activities offer their own supplementary educational benefits, but academics should come first, says Robert Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, whose membership includes the state bodies that govern high school athletics and activities.

School districts need a “clearly defined purpose for their athletic program” that syncs with their overall mission statement, Kanaby says.

Mike Hill, deputy director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, calls interscholastic sports “the elephant in the room that no one’s been talking about in terms of high school reform.” His group in October 2004 released a study, prompted by a request from the organization’s members, that found school leaders generally had little information on how participation in athletics affects academics. Especially in this age of heightened federal accountability that demands yearly increases in student achievement, the superintendent is the obvious leader on this issue. But that can be easy to say and hard to do, Hill says.

Among the NASBE study’s conclusions was that state boards of education should work closely with state athletic associations to increase academic standards for athletic eligibility. Indeed, the Iowa Board of Education — inspired by the NASBE study — voted in March to require high school athletes to pass all their classes to be eligible to participate in sports. Previously, athletes were required to pass only four classes per semester. Actions such as these could relieve some of the pressure for individual school districts, Hill says.

“It’s difficult for superintendents to stick their necks out on this,” Hill says. “For them, it’s a no-win situation in many cases.”

Community Desires
The parallelism with intercollegiate athletics is striking in some respects. Many believe university presidents long ago turned a blind eye to questionable practices in their institutions’ sports operations by relinquishing oversight to athletic departments. This belief contributes to a state now where vocal alumni boosters and financial interests lead to widespread concerns over student eligibility, recruitment of high school athletes and boorish behavior by participants and their backers.

In many local communities, athletic interests in secondary schools seem to prevail over academic needs. Yet confronting issues in athletics often puts school leaders in the face of parents and community boosters whose priorities may differ from those of the educational leader but who bring lots of political capital and financial support to the school system. Smaller, more remote communities especially define themselves by scholastic athletics. Community residents rarely will turn out in droves to pass budgets except when sports are in jeopardy. And sports booster clubs sometimes raise huge sums to support varsity programs.

Hill recognizes that superintendents have to develop the kind of school district the community wants. And most communities want winners.

Joe Gillis, a school board member in the 6,000-student Bridgewater-Raynham School District in Massachusetts, came to that realization when he began suggesting a change in school start times. The parent of a 1st grader and a 6th grader, Gillis had read studies of circadian rhythms that suggested teenagers would perform better in school if their classes began later in the day. Elementary students, on the other hand, can handle early starts and tire as the day goes on.

As in most districts, start times in his district, located 25 miles south of Boston, were just the opposite. High school classes begin before 8 a.m., and elementaries don’t start until 9 a.m. With Bridgewater-Raynham striving to improve its students’ academic performance, why not rearrange school hours, Gillis suggested.

His idea proved too complicated in large measure because it would affect high school sports practices and competitions. Bridgewater-Raynham’s high schools dismiss by 2 p.m., which means competitions can begin by 3 p.m. If Bridgewater-Raynham made a unilateral change, its teams would be competing on an unlevel playing field against the other high schools in its league.

William Bainbridge sees scheduling as an issue ripe for reform by superintendents who want to restore a balance in the athletics-academics equation.

Bainbridge, a former school superintendent who is chief executive officer of SchoolMatch, a consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio, decries the practice of scheduling extracurricular activities — particularly athletic events — on weeknights. His company audits school districts around the country, and Bainbridge has observed many a student asleep in a morning class, he says. Who can blame them when they’re out late playing in some school-sanctioned competition, he says, and then expected to perform well in school the next day?

“I think the superintendents need to take the lead in saying if the student can’t be home — home, not just back at school — by 10 o’clock, then they shouldn’t have it,” Bainbridge says. “Somebody’s got to put a foot down. This is school.”

Present Excesses
The loudest critics of high school interscholastic athletics echo that view. Decades ago, they say, school sports did not undermine the school day. Children did not hit the soccer fields as 3 and 4 year olds, booster clubs didn’t dictate the sorts of athletic facilities schools should have. School athletics were competitive, but it was all in the name of fun for the students, not entertainment for the adults, the argument goes.

Maybe that’s a rosy view of the past, but there’s no whitewashing the present and its many examples of the excesses of sports madness in public schools, says Bruce Svare, director of the National Institute for Sports Reform in Selkirk, N.Y. In his 2004 book Reforming Sports Before the Clock Runs Out, he ticks off example after example from the secondary school ranks. These include:

 

  • A New York school district well-known for its championship football teams could not muster public support for tax increases to support academic reforms, but its booster club raised enough money to build a new football field;

     

  • A school district in the Pittsburgh area spent $10 million to renovate a stadium and build a 13,000-square-foot field house; and

     

  • Football-stadium building projects at high schools in the Dallas area alone have totaled $180 million over the last few years.

    For all the emphasis on competitive sports, school-age children in the United States are experiencing an epidemic of obesity. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children exercise every day, the number of students participating in daily high school physical education classes dropped 10 percentage points from 1991 to 2001, according to the federal agency.

    Like others who question how scholastic athletics have risen to such a level of importance in the United States, Svare sees a cultural shift at work. A psychology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, he believes public schools should be stemming the tide, instead of being swept along to the ultimate detriment of students. Svare says no conclusive research links academic performance to participation in interscholastic athletics, even though that argument often is raised to justify spending on interscholastic sports teams and facilities.

    “These decisions to finance huge sports facilities — how can we do that when we can’t conjure up more money to pay teachers for smaller class sizes?” Svare says. “Superintendents have to tell the truth, make difficult decisions.”

    Football Craze
    Often, the pressure from the community can be overwhelming. Far too many parents try to relive their own aborted sports careers through their kids. One school board member in New York led an effort to fire the superintendent after his child failed to make the varsity team.

    In many towns and cities across the country, the success of high school sports teams defines the community. Think “Friday Night Lights,” the book and film about the residents of Odessa, Texas, and their obsession with the Permian High School Panthers football team. Or “Hoosiers,” a 1986 film about an Indiana high school basketball team and its trip to the state championship. A Valdosta, Ga., cable channel broadcasts a popular television show about the Valdosta High School Wildcats football team. And USA Today long ago brought notoriety and even mythical status to high schools in the largest cities and the tiniest burgs when it started to publish its Top 20 rankings in an array of scholastic sports.

    “As long as there is community energy and enthusiasm to maintaining a high-profile extracurricular program, you’ve got to put that emphasis,” says Roy Benavides, a retired Texas superintendent whose last district was the Ector County School District, home of Permian High School.

    When John Wilson was a young superintendent in football-crazed Texas, he soaked up a bit of advice he never forgot. His first superintendent job was in Cuero, Texas, a town of 8,000 that was wild for its football team, the Gobblers. Major crowds turned out on Friday nights for the Gobblers’ games. As Wilson assumed the top job there, the outgoing superintendent told him it was a great place to work if he just remembered one thing.

    “He said, ‘You can do most anything. But if you mess with football, you’re gone,’” says Wilson, now retired from the superintendency and running his own consulting firm in the Houston area.

    Superintendents in such situations have to find a way to deal with those attitudes even while they strive to carry out their charge to educate children. Wilson says he kept in the forefront the fact that he was an advocate for all children, not just the fraction of the students in any district who plays varsity football or basketball.

    Scholarship Appeal
    All the fuss over athletics really benefits the few. Yet schools have to deal with what society hands them. And American society is increasingly becoming consumed by sports, says Wilson Sears, superintendent of the 1,600-student Somerset Independent School District in Somerset, Ky., an hour south of Lexington.

    At 65, Sears has seen a lot during his years in education. Right now, he doesn’t like some of what he’s seeing: Organized sports creeping in to the elementary schools, parents viewing athletics as their children’s sole ticket to a better life, and families ceding control of their time to a child’s sports schedule.

    For some parents with children who exhibit talent at sports, the vision of raising the next phenom becomes overwhelming. Realistically, few make it to the top. Nationwide about 7 million teenagers participate in athletics at the high school level each year. Some sort of college athletic scholarship — ranging from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I universities to community colleges — goes to only 465,000 students a year, says Kanaby, who heads the National Federation of High School Associations. And only Division I schools offer full-ride scholarships; others are a combination of financial aid and athletic stipend, he adds. The chances of snagging even one of those aren’t great.

    “There are far more academic scholarships out there,” he says.

    Couched in different terms, it’s more rational for a family to dream of their child becoming a doctor than a professional athlete. But try telling that to some parents. Americans love tales about beating the odds. That’s likely why stories about underdog teams making it to state tournament and underprivileged children rising to greatness through their athletic prowess resonate.

    And a lot of poor families believe sports are the only way out, Grier says. When children live their whole lives in poverty, they often have a hard time seeing the connection between education and a meaningful job. For them, the state championship becomes the brass ring, but they give little thought to what that brass ring means after high school, Grier says.

    Sears explains it this way: “People look at sports not as recreation and play but as the beginning of an economic explosion for the entire family,” Sears says. “The negative result is that many are left seriously behind in the academic world, and then the opportunity to become responsible adults in the real world goes down the tubes.”

    Don’t get him wrong: He’s a sports fan. Sears has been a player, a coach and an athletic director before becoming a superintendent. There’s an important place for sports and other extracurricular activities, he says. But schools can’t bow to the pressure wrought on them by a sports-crazy society, he says.

    “There are some things that we can’t change,” Sears says. “We can’t change the lure of the professional sports dollar and we can’t change the rising cost of college. We have to look at it as what can we do in our district to ensure a healthy environment for our kids to participate in sports?”

    Maine’s Reform
    Throwing out interscholastic sports would be as wrong as paying too much attention to them. For some students, the chance to participate in sports might be the only thing keeping them in school. For others, proficiency in sports truly will open doors to higher education. That’s a reality that educators can’t afford to overlook.

    Playing on a sports team also teaches certain socialization skills that can’t be easily learned in a classroom, says Mike Slagle, athletic director of the 19,000-student Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., a Kansas City suburb.

    To that end, Slagle emphasizes three things when he meets with his coaches at the start of each year: They have to teach students to compete; students need to leave feeling they’ve had a positive experience; and they have to play by the rules. Participating in team sports can impart lessons of discipline and character that might not be easily taught in an English class, Slagle says.

    “You are part of a larger plan,” he says. “It’s just not all about you. You’re responsible to your teammates. Our kids need to learn that at an early age.”

    And despite the dearth of studies to this effect, many superintendents maintain that students who participate in extracurricular activities do their schoolwork, too. With eligibility rules demanding passing grades, students don’t want to lose their chance at staying on the team, says Kerwin Urhahn, superintendent of the 846-student Portageville School District in southeast Missouri.

    “We want our kids to be involved in activities,” says Urhahn, who in July will become executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association. “It keeps them out of trouble elsewhere.”

    Balance is the key. A program taking Maine school districts by storm hopes to inspire schools to teach their students the art of healthy competition while keeping the importance of sports in perspective. In January 2005, the Maine Center for Sport and Coaching at the University of Maine unveiled the program called Sports Done Right. Twelve districts around the state are piloting the program, including the 3,600-student Auburn School Department, 30 miles north of Portland.

    The program dovetails with the district’s decision to treat its sports and activities as co-curricular rather than extracurricular, Superintendent Barbara Eretzian says. With Sports Done Right, students learn that good citizenship is expected on the playing field, too. Coaches, school board members and the community by and large were receptive to the program, Eretzian says, adding, “It’s a great framework for saying, ‘This is what we expect.’”

    The program also impressed Jim Hamilton, the athletic director of the Mapleton Public Schools in Denver. He flew to Maine last year to attend a Sports Done Right conference, looking for advice on keeping sports in the proper perspective in his district, which has 5,600 students.

    Hamilton and his coaches already emphasize to players and parents that schoolwork must come first, he says. Parents and athletes sign an agreement each year acknowledging that the district will check grades weekly. Students who aren’t passing at least five classes won’t participate until the grades improve, he says. That rule is backed up by one instituted by the Colorado High School Activities Association; Hamilton sits on the association’s board of control.

    “Athletics is not an inherent right for anyone to participate in,” says Hamilton, a former coach. “It’s a privilege earned through good performance in the classroom.”

    A Governing Role
    State athletic associations can be a major influence on the role of sports at the district level. With most boards dominated by athletic directors and high school principals, they can create their own rules for eligibility and conduct of competitions, often with minimal or no direct input from superintendents. They also serve an enforcement role. In addition, state association rules can shield some districts from outside political pressures, some contend.

    In Missouri, Urhahn says, high school varsity teams were prohibited for years from participating in competitions outside a 250-mile radius of the school. That meant no traveling to New York or Hawaii for national tournaments or cheerleading competitions. It also meant that high school bands couldn’t march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

    Last year, however, members of the Missouri State High School Activities Association voted to allow schools to compete in one far-flung tournament or competition annually per sport as long as the travel didn’t interfere with class time. For most school districts, Urhahn says, that translates to the possibility of competing in an out-of-state tournament over winter or spring break. “The schools asked for that,” he says.

    In Washington state, the board of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association wants to broaden its representation. Art Jarvis figures that’s how he ended up on the board. The superintendent of the 5,000-student Enumclaw School District, located an hour southeast of Seattle, Jarvis, 62, doesn’t feel like the odd man out on the board, although he’s the only superintendent. But he does feel like he’s getting a better understanding of why many superintendents are happy to relinquish oversight of athletics to other administrators. With funding and huge curriculum changes demanding so much attention, superintendents likely are happy to hand over one piece of the pie to someone else, Jarvis suggests.

    “But at some point, superintendents need to pay attention,” Jarvis says. “Athletics and activities represent a huge part of the public’s engagement.”

    Unpopular Decisions
    When superintendents do pay careful attention to what’s happening in their competitive sports programs, they sometimes discover they have to rein them in. Those likely won’t be the fun moments, says Raj Chopra, superintendent of the 24,000-student Phoenix, Ariz., Union High School District.

    During his 30 years as a superintendent, Chopra has served districts in Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Each locale has its own sport that draws rabid fans. Chopra felt the heat several times for making unpopular decisions that affected his districts’ interscholastic athletics programs.

    In the Shawnee Mission School District in Overland Park, Kan., declining enrollment forced Chopra and the school board to realign district schools. The board ended up closing several junior high schools and establishing middle schools. Interscholastic sports left the middle schools, replaced by intramural sports in which any child could play any sport. Chopra pushed the change in the belief that intramurals offered the best opportunity for the greatest number of students to participate.

    But from the time of the change until he left the district five years later, Chopra felt pressure from some patrons to bring interscholastic athletics back to the middle schools, he says. He resisted, and so did the school board.

    A superintendent’s job is to present the facts to the board while urging them to keep the educational priorities of the district, Chopra says, adding, “Superintendents at least try to bring a balance.”

    Route to Success
    That’s what Grier, the superintendent in Guilford County, N.C., strives for. He empathizes with sports fans. He knows folks become passionate about their teams. He lives in North Carolina, after all, where basketball rules. He’s been in Ohio and Texas, too, where football is the name of the game.

    Growing up in the Tar Heel State, Grier played for his high school football team. He wasn’t good enough to play in college, but that wasn’t his goal. His father had dropped out of school. His grandfather was a sharecropper. But Grier persevered and now claims a doctoral degree from Vanderbilt University.

    A good high school education, not his teenage sports abilities, put him on the road to his life today. “There is this sense that (sports) is all we have,” Grier says. “And it just can’t be that way.”

    Kate Beem is a free-lance education writer in Independence, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@earthlink.net