The Omaha Public Schools could be moving closer to a policy that would bench student-athletes who fail to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average.
The requirement would be more stringent than the state standard — a standard that several school officials called exceedingly lax.
The school board president, Justin Wayne, asked district administrators to draft a policy requiring a minimum 2.0 GPA — a C average — for consideration at the board's Nov. 18 meeting.
“Let's bring it before the board, and they can vote it up or down,” Wayne said.
The policy, if adopted, would be phased in over three years.
Led by Wayne, the school board has been grappling with the idea of setting a GPA requirement for eight months. At Monday's board meeting, Wayne said OPS has the opportunity to become a trailblazer in Nebraska by pushing for tougher academic standards. Student-athletes make up one-quarter of OPS's high school population.
“I see OPS leading that charge here,” Wayne said.
OPS follows the Nebraska School Activities Association's eligibility guidelines, which require students to pass four classes to participate in sports. Under those standards, a student could get four D's and three F's and still be eligible to play. Most states and school districts require students to pass at least five classes.
“We need to be striving for excellence,” board member Yolanda Williams said. “There are kids playing championship-level games that can't read, or can't pass, or can't go on to college.”
If approved by the board, Wayne proposes a three-year, gradual implementation that will give parents and students time to acclimate to the new standard.
The district currently requires all freshman athletes to attend a weekly one-hour academic coaching session after school — similar to a study hall — a practice now in its sixth year.
For the first time this year, OPS extended districtwide a North High pilot program targeting upperclassmen who are failing two or more classes or have a GPA below 2.0. Those students in 10th, 11th or 12th grades must attend academic coaching with their teammates once a week, whether or not their sport is in season. The program costs about $160,000 per year and is covered by a grant.
“At North High, they had a lot of success,” said OPS athletic director Bob Danenhauer. “They did have kids who would skip, but they'd pull them back in. They were told, 'You'll do this or you'll be sitting games.' ”
Board member Lou Ann Goding said she heard push-back from some parents about the freshman program — should their kid have to go if they're pulling straight A's and B's?
“If that student is doing well, requiring them to be there doesn't make sense,” she said.
Academic coaches do monitor quarterly grades, and students can earn a reprieve if it's clear that they're having no trouble, Danenhauer said.
Preliminary OPS data suggest that the extra attention might be working. The GPAs of the 129 North High students who participated in the study table program increased slightly from 2011-12 to 2012-13. Students who attended the most study sessions saw the biggest GPA gains and had fewer suspensions compared with the previous year.
Wayne proposes keeping that study system in place this year. Under his three-year plan, the academic sessions would continue next year and athletes would only be able to fail one class and still play.
By 2015-16, one flunked class would disqualify a student from sports. Final implementation would occur the following year, when the 2.0 minimum GPA would be mandatory.
“I would like it to be shorter, but in reality, you can't go from no policy to a new policy without hurting kids,” Wayne said.
Board members requested, and received, a trove of data Monday related to the effectiveness of the district's coaching sessions, how many kids would be ineligible under a 2.0 GPA standard and comparisons of grade policies in other districts.
More than 2,800 high schoolers participated in at least one sport in the 2011-12 school year. Of those students, roughly 16 percent had a GPA below 2.0.
Two analyses by The World-Herald and the district show that a switch to a 2.0 requirement would disproportionately affect black and low-income athletes. The World-Herald also found that more than half of the Northwest High football team would have sat last year, while a quarter of Benson's athletes would be ineligible.
OPS research also showed how hard it is for a student to recover from a bad first semester. Eighty-six percent of students who had a low first-semester GPA were unable to raise their grades above a 2.0 by their junior year, though athletes were more likely than non-athletes to boost their grades.
Other schools that have implemented GPA policies include Kansas City and Scottsdale, Ariz., which requires all students involved in extracurriculars to maintain a 2.0.
Other districts like Baltimore have found that stricter policies can be a double-edged sword. At one Baltimore school, an entire sports team had to sit out the season because so many athletes were ineligible. The district felt some students were also shying away from taking honors and Advanced Placement courses out of fear their GPAs would drop.
In debating the 2.0 requirement, several OPS school board members said they believed that the current standards were too easy but feared alienating students whose main motivation for going to school was playing a sport.
“Students who are engaged are more likely to be successful,” board member Marian Fey said. “It's the carrot, not the stick.”
Others worried that OPS students would simply switch to other nearby districts with less-rigorous standards.
“It would be a much better situation if the whole state was looking at it,” Superintendent Mark Evans said. “Then you're not worrying about young people exercising choice, where they think we can get around this rule because they can go to the school across the street or half a mile away because they don't have that requirement.”
An earlier version of this story said an incorrect number of high schoolers participated in at least one sport in the 2011-12 school year, the correct number of students is more than 2,800.