Clean slate for ninth-grade athletes gets CMS approval

Charlotte-Mecklenburg ninth-graders can participate in fall sports and other extracurricular activities this school year regardless of last year’s grades and attendance, under a policy the school board approved unanimously Tuesday.

Freshmen will have to earn a 2.0 grade-point average (a C average) and maintain at least 85 percent attendance first semester to remain eligible second semester. District leaders say that will help motivate students who may not have done well in eighth grade.

“They need a chance at a fresh start. Thank you for giving them a fresh start,” said Joe Hamby, who told the board that a teen he mentored last year might not have flunked ninth grade if he could have played football. Instead, that student was blocked by the former policy, which took effect in 2009 and bases eligibility on the last semester of eighth grade.

“I’m not giving up on him,” Hamby said, “but I know too well the odds he’s facing.”

Students who fall behind in ninth grade are at high risk of failing to graduate. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ top administrators and principals cited that as a reason to revise the eligibility requirements, which are now in line with the N.C. High School Athletic Association rules and those of many surrounding counties.

The board voted 8-0, with Rhonda Lennon absent, under a fast-track option that lets the board skip public hearings when quicker changes are needed for the efficient operation of schools. CMS wanted to settle the eligibility question before tryouts for football and other fall sports start Aug. 1.

Hamby and two other people used the general public comment period to talk about the proposal. Elizabeth Matulis, who said she is a South Mecklenburg High graduate and college student, said struggling ninth-graders should be sent for tutoring rather than being allowed to play sports. She said the policy change sets students up to fail.

Shalonda Gallman, who identified herself as a parent from a neighborhood with many at-risk students, urged the board to give ninth-graders a full year, rather than just one semester, to meet the GPA and attendance standards. “It’s something to keep them engaged and motivated,” she said.

The board vote came without discussion or questions. No one explained why the normal process for policy changes wasn’t started earlier.

Questions about the proposed sales-tax cap came up at a CMS school board meeting Tuesday night.

Board Chair Mary McCray asked legislative liaison Jonathan Sink if he knew why the local cap was set at 2.5 cents, Mecklenburg's current level. Sink said he didn't know.

"Just personally, to me, it feels punitive to Mecklenburg County," said McCray, a Democrat and retired teacher.

While the school board has taken no position on the county's plan for a sales tax referendum, McCray said having extra money to supplement teacher salaries would give CMS "a competitive advantage" in hiring.

Superintendent Heath Morrison noted that if the cap passes, other counties could use sales tax to supplement salaries while Mecklenburg would be blocked because it has already reached the limit.

Also Tuesday, the board approved Crystal Lail as principal of Elizabeth Lane Elementary. Lail was a teacher and academic facilitator at Olde Providence Elementary before becoming a principal fellow at Elizabeth Lane last year.