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No-huddle call on sports eligibility

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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
CMS officials fast-tracked a policy change in time for fall sports tryouts.

As many parents know, sports and other extracurricular activities can be great for kids. They offer discipline and purpose to children who need it, and they give students a way to connect with peers. A bonus: The threat of losing those activities can be a powerful motivator to students less-than-excited about school work.

But most parents also know it’s tricky to balance that threat with those benefits. When do you punish bad grades instead of encouraging better work? That’s the question the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education seemed to confront Tuesday when it approved a new policy that would weaken eligibility standards for ninth-grade students.

We say “seemed” because the school board didn’t confront much at all – at least publicly. The board brought the policy change to a vote under a fast-track option that allows it to skip public hearings. Board members also didn’t discuss the issue or ask questions before unanimously approving the policy, the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms reported.

CMS officials pushed for the change so students could be eligible for fall sports tryouts next month. But as Helms reports, no one explained why the normal process for policy changes wasn’t simply started earlier. Instead, the board rushed into a policy and missed an opportunity to perhaps better serve struggling students.

That new policy allows ninth-graders into fall sports and extracurriculars regardless of their eighth-grade attendance and grades. Previous policy required that students have at least a 2.0 grade-point average and 85 percent attendance in the previous semester, including in eighth grade for rising ninth-grade students. Students still will have to meet those standards for the rest of high school.

Why the change? District officials say they wanted to motivate, not punish, students who struggled in middle school. That motivation might be especially important for ninth-graders, as recent studies have shown that the first year of high school is a lynchpin in determining if a student will move on or drop out of school. To that end, sports and other activities can help students assimilate into high school.

But if students already are scuffling academically, the demands of a sports team could put them further behind. Also, some experts say weakening standards sends the wrong message about athletics and academics.

One alternative: If a rising ninth-grade athlete doesn’t meet academic requirements, that student could participate in fall sports practices, but no games. That might not address the demands on a student’s schedule, but it offers important benefits to ninth-graders without fully rewarding poor academics.

This is, certainly, not a new issue. But other school districts have used it as an opportunity to improve tutoring and academic help for athletes and other students. CMS could have explored similar opportunities, but instead of the usual deliberate approach to policy changes, the school board eschewed public input and rushed students into a situation that might not be best. Why the hurry?

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