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If the Omaha Public Schools required student-athletes to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, hundreds of teenagers who played high school sports last year likely would have been ineligible.
OPS data show that 464 football players, wrestlers and other athletes had GPAs lower than 2.0 at the end of last school year. That was just more than 16 percent, or one of every six OPS high school athletes.
A minimum 2.0 GPA — a C average — also would disproportionately affect black and low-income student athletes, based on the data. One-third of the district's black athletes would have been ineligible last school year.
About a quarter of the district's athletes whose families qualified for federal lunch subsidies earned less than 2.0 GPAs last year. The subsidies provide an indicator of poverty.
The idea of a minimum GPA came up in March, when board member Justin Wayne suggested one for students participating in sports and other extracurricular activities. To gauge the impact of the idea, The World-Herald requested data from the district to show how a minimum 2.0 GPA would affect student-athletes. The data did not name students, nor did it break down numbers by varsity versus other teams.
Wayne said he suggested the GPA requirement because too many OPS athletes have the talent to play in college but don't have the grades.
Such a policy would affect OPS teams and schools unevenly, based on the OPS data. Among the biggest impacts:
» Seventeen of the 97 members of Central's boys basketball program (including freshman and junior varsity teams) would have been unable to play under the rule. Central's varsity team took state last year.
» At Northwest High, almost 54 percent of the football team would have had to sit out. In fact, almost 30 percent of the school's athletes would have been disqualified.
» At Benson, a quarter of the athletes wouldn't have qualified.
Such a requirement would be tougher than the state demands. Districts elsewhere, as well as some states, have implemented similar academic requirements, with mixed results.
Nationally, it will soon get harder to qualify academically and play sports at college. In fall 2016, incoming freshmen wanting to play Division I athletics immediately will need a 2.3 GPA in their core classes, such as English, science and math.
Wayne suggested the new policy before OPS made its data available, but he said the numbers reinforce his desire to make a change.
“It reaffirms that we must have it — a minimum GPA requirement — along with the support systems to make sure kids are successful,” said Wayne, who hasn't put a formal proposal before the board.
Support systems could include an expanded high school tutoring program or extra support for student-athletes, Wayne said.
The suggestion comes as research consistently shows that students involved in athletics and other activities, particularly youths from low-income families, are more likely to get better grades and stay in school.
“Certainly you want to have standards for kids,” said Lisa Kort-Butler, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has studied the effects of extracurricular activities on students. “(But) you don't want to take away other things that make them feel like they're part of school.”
Nearly all the OPS board candidates in Tuesday's election told The World-Herald they favored a minimum GPA for participation in extracurricular activities, although a few said that before weighing in, they wanted more information on how it would affect students.
Jill Brown, who is challenging Wayne, said she would vote against such a proposal as a board member.
“This just seems like a random policy without a vision,” Brown said.
She questioned limiting extracurricular activities for students when research shows students involved in them have more self-confidence and attend school more regularly. Brown, an associate professor of developmental psychology at Creighton University, said that in a district with 50,000 students, she'd worry about bigger issues.
Making wrestlers and speech contestants maintain a 2.0 GPA would be much tougher than the current requirements at OPS high schools.
Like other Nebraska public and private high schools, OPS rules match the eligibility guidelines of the Nebraska School Activities Association: Get at least a D in four classes the previous semester. (Most OPS students take seven classes each semester.)
Under the current guidelines, a student could get four D's and three F's and still be eligible.
“That basically equates to a half-day of work,” said Deb Velder, associate director of the NSAA.
Velder said she is not aware of any effort to strengthen the state's requirements during her 32 years with the NSAA.
Some coaches ask more of their athletes than the NSAA requires.
Doug Woodard, boys basketball coach at Bellevue West, periodically checks students' grades. If a student is performing worse than his potential, he might have to go after school — during practice time — to get help from a teacher.
Woodard agrees with Wayne that the state eligibility standards could be raised. But he said OPS would be better off getting NSAA-member schools to change the state guidelines.
Any statewide change would have to go through the organization's legislative process, which includes getting the support of the majority of schools in three of the NSAA's six districts.
A prominent OPS soccer coach echoed Woodard's comments, saying the requirements could be tougher, but change them for everyone.
At the same time, Joe Maass, soccer coach at Omaha South for 15 years, said the 2.0 GPA standard would be met if it were implemented. More than 80 percent of South's soccer players had GPAs above 2.0 at the end of last school year, according to OPS data.
In addition to the 2.0 GPA requirement, he said, high schools could make students sit out if they're failing two classes during the semester.
Wayne said he initially requested GPA data on OPS athletes from district staff in October. He said he was told that his request was denied because the data would have identified students.
In January, Wayne asked that the topic of athletic eligibility be placed on a board committee agenda for discussion.
In March, during a board committee discussion, Wayne mentioned requiring a 2.0 GPA or a 2.3 GPA for students involved in extracurricular activities.
At the time, some OPS board members questioned the wisdom of OPS unilaterally changing its requirements. Students who didn't qualify to play in OPS could simply transfer to another district.
“We don't want to have an unintended consequence of losing students,” Marian Fey, OPS board president, said in a recent phone interview.
School districts and some states have adopted similar policies, with differing results.
Officials with some states say the policy hasn't harmed participation, while others blamed the 2.0 GPA requirement for leading to smaller athletic teams.
Florida and California have long required student-athletes to have 2.0 GPAs.
“It's not declining participation or anything. A 2.0 is still very, very doable,” said Corey Sobers, spokesman for the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Approaches in other areas:
» In some states, including Iowa, students must pass all their classes to be eligible. Individual school districts also can have tougher standards than the state minimum.
» For decades, the Kansas City Public Schools have required a minimum 2.0 GPA to participate in athletics, tougher than required by the Missouri State High School Activities Association.
» The Rockford, Ill., Public Schools, half the size of OPS but similar in demographics, tried a similar system but dropped it. District officials said the requirement decreased student involvement and didn't increase graduation rates.
Matt Vosberg, district assistant superintendent in Rockford, said some students took easier classes, such as two physical education classes instead of an Advanced Placement course, to ensure they got a 2.0. Other students just sat out of sports, he said, and Rockford's teams struggled.
“After you implement it, you realize there are some unintended consequences to it,” Vosberg said.
Rockford dropped the 2.0 mark in favor of making students pass five classes, which is now also the guideline of the Illinois High School Association.
Two years later, Vosberg said, the number of Rockford students taking at least one Advanced Placement course has increased 30 percent, and the number of students in high school athletics has jumped, although specific numbers weren't available.
Students from low-income families, which are prevalent in both OPS and Rockford, benefit the most from extracurricular activities, said Kort-Butler, the UNL sociologist. Students who are involved are more likely to stay in school.
“Having this connection to school through extracurricular activities helps, in a sense, buffer against some of those other things in their lives,” she said.
When those kids become young adults, she said, they're more likely to avoid risky behaviors, such as substance abuse.
Maass, at South High, said he has had students with GPAs close to 2.0 who stayed in school because of soccer and later went to college.
Wayne said he's aware of the role extracurricular activities play in kids' lives and that some kids attend school only because of them. Close friends of his dropped out after not making Omaha high school basketball teams.
That's why any changes for OPS would be phased-in, he said, and be accompanied by a strong support system for student-athletes.
He said he brought up the idea to get people talking about academics and athletics.
“The purpose of it was to start a discussion,” he said, “and make sure all of our student-athletes are being successful.”
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How minimum GPA would affect OPS
The World-Herald requested various data from the Omaha Public Schools about how a minimum grade-point average would affect OPS students participating in extracurricular activities. Data is based on OPS student-athletes by the end of the 2011-12 school year. Individual athletes' names and a breakdown by team — varsity, junior varsity, etc. — were not provided. To avoid identifying students, OPS also blacked out the data on some sports because the groups were smaller than 10 or all the students were listed in one group or category, such as all athletes being above or below a 2.0 GPA.
Percentage below 2.0 GPA
Family income level
Students from families who qualify for free or reduced-price meals: 25.6
Students whose families do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals: 5.8