Published Monday, November 18, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 5:31 pm
OPS ELIGIBILITY rule
World-Herald editorial: High eligibility standard raises game

Kids in sports and other school activities want to compete.

Tell a young lineman he must lift weights to play, and watch him come back stronger. Dangle a solo in front of a violinist if her technique improves, and weeks later, listen.

That’s why Omaha school board president Justin Wayne is on the right track with his idea to require better grades from students in Omaha Public Schools who want to participate in sports and extracurricular activities sanctioned by the Nebraska School Activities Association.

There’s nothing to fear from focusing on classroom achievement as a necessary step toward getting to the playing field, floor or stage. That emphasizes the student in student-athlete.

Some students might not care that they would finish high school with sharper, more marketable skills in reading, writing, math and science. But they most certainly would.

Several proposals are before the OPS board tonight. One would require that the quarterback and the trombone player pass all classes and earn at least a 2.0 grade-point average in the previous term to participate in a sport or activity. It would implement the new requirements in stages.

That and other proposals under consideration by OPS would ask more of students than does the NSAA, which requires only that sophomores and up earn at least a D grade in four classes the semester before they participate.

Those statewide standards should be re-examined, too. There’s no excuse for Nebraska to have some of the region’s lowest minimum participation standards. NSAA officials should explore pass-to-play models in other states and develop their own.

It makes sense for school districts that care deeply about the academic progress of athletes and debaters to require more in the classroom.

The proposals being considered by the Omaha school board wisely would offer students access to academic tutoring. Teachers and administrators would intervene more often with grade checks and steer students toward help. A similar pilot program for 129 athletes at North High School helped them raise their grades.

For students whose grades fall short, there would be specific, achievable routes back to full participation. That would help keep at-risk students engaged in their schools.

OPS board members have heard from a vocal few about how this policy might lead some students to give up on school. They also hear that other students might take easier courses.

These are legitimate concerns, but they have proven largely unfounded in Texas and Florida — two states with years of data on their own no pass-no play rules. The Austin (Texas) Independent School District studied the impact of Texas’ no pass-no play rule and found that athletes passed more courses than before and that the number of difficult courses taken even rose slightly.

OPS’ Wayne is quick to point out that the impetus for improving student performance falls first on parents, who in some cases need to be more involved. But coaches, too, can put more emphasis on academics. And implementing tougher standards would need a commitment at the grade school and middle school levels to help make certain students are ready for high school work.

An OPS report on student athletes in 2011-12 showed that about 15 percent of OPS athletes earned lower than a 2.0 GPA. As with the wider achievement gap OPS faces, students from backgrounds of poverty more often fell short.

But local evidence also shows that higher expectations can help, so long as support systems are in place.

Burke High School independently requires more from its athletes. Grades are checked weekly. Athletes are allowed one failing grade in a weekly spot check. At two, they have a week to correct things or they sit the bench. Students on notice receive academic tutoring outside of school.

Burke athletic director Kyle Rohrig has kept data since 2010 and said more students are rising to the challenge now. “Parents, teachers, everybody — if they’re on board with this, the students will meet those expectations,” he says.

One can disagree with Wayne’s 2.0 GPA target. Options before the Omaha school board include starting with a no pass-no play rule without the GPA requirement. The board could decide later to ratchet up its expectations.

Regardless, it is laudable to see the OPS board weighing how best to encourage academic achievement. That is the board’s most important charge.

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