Most middle- and high-school athletes in Beaufort County's public schools maintained their academic eligibility to play sports this fall and winter despite stricter requirements.
Ninety-three percent of student-athletes met the 2.0 GPA requirement set by the Board of Education in 2011. That policy was designed to exceed academic requirements set by the S.C. High School League, the sanctioning body for public schools and a handful of private schools in South Carolina.
Only one other state district, Richland County School District 1, has a similar policy, according to the Beaufort County School District's chief student-services officer, Gregory A. McCord.
Because of the stricter rules, more high school athletes were ineligible than in recent years.
"Student athletes are taking a more serious approach to their academics ... and getting grades they need to graduate college-ready," McCord said.
The district requires student-athletes to maintain a "C" average to participate in sports. After-school tutoring is required for students struggling to meet that requirement. Those with a GPA lower than 2.0 for the preceding semester cannot play again until they raise their grades and keep them up for a full semester.
The GPA requirement is based on the previous semester's grades, not cumulative GPA.
McCord said the district also has policies that bar students from playing in a game if they fail to attend study halls after their average dips below 77 percent in any class.
Coaches monitor students' grades weekly, he said.
"The policy's goal is not to deter students from participating, but to make sure that they are academically eligible for college scholarships when they leave high school," McCord said.
The NCAA has also raised the GPA requirement for college eligibility to a 2.3 cumulative GPA, starting with the graduating high school class of 2016.
Of the 1,731 high school athletes in the district this school year, 116 did not meet the academic requirement, or about 7 percent.
That compares to about 13 percent of high school athletes two years ago who had GPAs below 2.0, many of whom were still eligible to play under the old rules.
Only 15 of the district's 1,832 high school athletes failed to meet High School League requirements during the 2010-11 school year. However, 233 had GPAs below 2.0.
The number of ineligible student-athletes last school year was not available, according to McCord.
Eighty-seven of 1,212 middle school athletes did not meet the academic requirement this school year.
High School League standards require students to pass four or five classes, depending on the semester, to participate in sports. A "D" is considered passing. There is no GPA requirement nor is there a requirement that core courses be passed. As a result, a student-athlete could be eligible to participate in sports but not be on track to graduate.
"We had too many athletes who were successful as athletes but were not focused on academics," said school board Chairman Bill Evans, a former principal at Hilton Head Island High School and former supervisor of athletics for the district. "They thought their athletic talent would carry them to college. We wanted a program that helped ensure those with the talent ... also had the academic background to qualify for college."
Board Vice Chairwoman Laura Bush was encouraged by the numbers.
"I think we're on the right track," said Bush, whose granddaughter -- Hilton Head Island High School senior Taylor Bush -- signed a letter of intent Wednesday to play soccer at Erskine College.
"We need to let these youngsters know we support student-athletes, but are more concerned with preparing them for a life beyond high school," Bush said.
Bluffton High School athletic director Dave Adams believes the policy has motivated students to step up their game in the classroom.
"If you raise the bar and set your expectations higher -- if the kids truly want to (continue their athletic career in college) -- they'll go over that bar," Adams said. "... The motivation is there. They truly love sports and want to participate."