If you want to suit up, prepare to get those grades up.
That's the message in the new eligibility policy nearing a final vote by the Omaha Public Schools board.
Students, parents and coaches who recently were interviewed largely backed the idea of holding students to a higher standard, saying the district needed a clear, consistent policy — even if the result means some have to warm the bench or miss the big show.
“If you really do want to play a sport, you'll do whatever you can to be out there,” said Demetrice Marable, a junior and three-sport athlete at Omaha Central High.
The new set of standards would require students participating in sports and other after-school activities like band and drama to maintain a 2.0 GPA — the equivalent of a “C” average. Students would also have to pass every class.
The rules would be far tougher than the standards enforced by the Nebraska School Activities Association— the ones that most schools, including all Class A schools in the Omaha and Lincoln area, follow.
The board gave preliminary approval to the policy on a unanimous vote Nov. 18 and is expected to take a final vote Monday night.
“If that means missing a few practices to get your grades up, you'll do it,” Marable said. “If you have a higher GPA, you'll get better looks from colleges.”
Some parents said the new standards are a long time coming — and could be even tougher.
“It's about time,” said Duwayne Smiley, whose son, Isaiah, plays basketball for Omaha North. “A 2.5 GPA, I think that would be really ideal. It would set them up for college.”
“My son's 3.5 GPA isn't even good enough for me,” said former school board member and club basketball coach Nicole Nash. “A 2.0 is achievable.”
That doesn't mean the transition is guaranteed to be a smooth one.
“It's going to be a culture shift,” said Casey Bigsby, a teacher who coordinates Central's academic coaching program for struggling student-athletes. “Students are going to have to get used to that new expectation.”
At least one board member has expressed concerns that stricter GPA standards could discourage at-risk kids who have little other incentive to stay in school. Others worry students will play it safe and steer clear of honors classes. Schools in Boston and Rockford, Ill., dropped their minimum GPA policies after teams shrank and morale declined.
Parent Joe Craig, who has kids at Central, Lewis and Clark Middle and Dundee Elementary, said he's heard some parents wonder if a policy is really necessary. About 84 percent of OPS student-athletes already earn GPAs over a 2.0.
“That should be a feather in OPS's cap,” he said. “Most of our kids are succeeding. A really small percentage is not.”
Currently, OPS follows the NSAA eligibility guidelines, which require students to pass four classes to participate in sports or other NSAA-sanctioned activities, which include music, debate, journalism, play production and speech. Under those standards, a student could get four D's and three F's and still be eligible to participate.
“I can't believe what it was — four D's. You shouldn't be playing if you can't do better than that,” said parent Darin Bullock, whose son Derrick plays freshman basketball for Omaha North.
Most states and school districts require students to pass at least five classes, while California and several other states passed laws requiring a 2.0 GPA to play sports.
The NCAA requires incoming college freshmen to have a 2.0 GPA to play, and that will get bumped up to a 2.3 by 2016.
If approved, OPS's policy wouldn't kick in immediately, or impact current high schoolers. The new requirements would be ratcheted up over the next three years, with the graduating class of 2018 — today's eighth-graders — the first students to fall under the new rules in 2016-17.
“We've seen so many athletes that had the potential to go D1 but can't show the grades,” Central cheerleader and athletic tutor Tanzy Givens, a senior, said. “This will definitely increase the number of people who can go on to college and play.”
A World-Herald analysis found one in six OPS athletes would have been sidelined in 2011-12 if required to post a 2.0 GPA. Seventeen of the 97 members of Central's winning boys basketball program, including freshman and junior varsity players, would have been ineligible under the rule. At Northwest High, half of the football team would have had to sit out.
But Northwest varsity football coach Tim Clemenger said the days of barely skating by are over. At an athletic awards ceremony this week, he announced to applause that 90 percent of the team had GPAs at or above a 2.0. Of that 90 percent, 42 percent earned a 3.0 or higher.
“The new policy is not going to cripple us,” Clemenger said.
Clemenger said a phase-in of the new requirements is crucial.
“I think it's a testament to the school board,” he said. “They're rolling it out the right way, gradually implementing it. ... Nobody's going to be surprised.”
At Central, basketball players Mikael Cummings, a sophomore, and Maguy Agau, a junior, had to start attending tutoring sessions to get their grades up this year.
“It was just laziness and bad habits,” Cummings said.
This year, OPS expanded to all high schools a North High pilot program that required upperclassmen to attend weekly academic coaching sessions if their grades dipped. Freshman athletes are also required to attend at least one session per week, regardless of grades or if their sport is in-season. School officials have said the tutoring piece will be key to helping students meet the more stringent standards.
Bigsby said the kids who show up generally buckle down and do their work, but there's little in the way of enforcement for students who skip their tutoring sessions, something teachers and coaches are working to change.
Craig said he believes teams should attend study groups together, instead of singling out the few kids who are struggling. And why shouldn't after-school tutoring be open to all students?
“At the end of the day, if kids aren't hitting a 2.0, regardless of whether or not they're an athlete, why aren't we focusing attention on them?” he said.
Basketball player Isaiah Smiley takes Advanced Placement and honors classes, but also voluntarily stops in at North study sessions to get his work done.
“We expect what we expect,” his mother, Tracy Smiley, said. “You're going to graduate with the best grades you can get, and basketball comes second.”