District's grades policy sends right message

Some coaches and administrators are wary of a Beaufort County Board of Education decision last week that will require students participating in extracurricular activities, such as athletics, drama, band or chorus, to have a grade point average of 2.0 or higher, starting with the 2012-13 school year.

One doesn't have to assume critics of the new policy have a win-at-all cost attitude to see that their eduational priorities are misplaced. Simply take their argument at face value: Borderline students who don't have sports or drama or chorus to look forward to will give up on school entirely.

Indeed, a few will.

But this argument ignores that under current rules, some kids participating in extracurricular activities have already dropped out of school in the way that matters most: They aren't learning.

This issue has come up in the past. The district already requires schools to report on the academic progress of students involved in extracurricular activities. Three times a year, at the end of each athletic season, the high schools must submit a report detailing whether mandatory study halls and tutoring for failing students helped improve their grades.

The policy, adopted by the school board in November 2008, requires all high school students involved in extracurricular activities to turn in biweekly grade reports. Students who have a 76 average or lower in any class will be required to attend tutoring sessions.

Students who skip out on tutoring or do not make sufficient progress could lose their eligibility.But before a student is suspended from an activity, a meeting among school administrators, the student, his or her parents, the teacher involved and the coach or activity sponsor is held. Administrators are granted discretion in determining whether the student will actually be suspended from extracurricular activity.

The new policy, which passed on a close 6-4 vote, sets a firm threshold for participation.,

Defenders of lower academic standards make two false assumptions about the benefit of extracurricular activities -- first, that they keep students who might otherwise drop out moving toward graduation; second, that those who don't graduate will at least have been kept occupied and out of trouble.

This newspaper has chronicled enough instances of student-athletes running afoul of the law to disprove any guarantee of staying out of trouble. As for graduating, the district recently reported that 233 or 13 percent of the district's 1,832 student-athletes have GPAs below 2.0. Only 15 were ineligible under current rules.

Context only makes this number more disturbing.

The S.C. High School League, which governs athletics for most of the state's high schools and middle schools, requires only that an athlete pass four or five courses, depending on the semester. The league does not have a GPA requirement nor does it specify that core subjects must be passed. A student could fail algebra and English, make D's in history, keyboarding, physical education and web design and remain eligible for sports with a GPA of 0.67.

That student has almost no hope of higher education, only the narrowest of job prospects and dim hope of even graduating from high school on time, if at all. Are we to be consoled that at least he was allowed to participate in sports for four years?

The district's new policy doesn't directly address the necessity of passing core classes, but it at least renders impossible the scenario described above.

None of this is to deny the positive influence athletics, drama, the arts or service clubs can have on our young people. Neither is it to diminish the sense of belonging these activities can impart to young adults who benefit from positive socializing forces.

But baseball bats can be used to knock sliders over the fence or mailboxes to the ground. Similarly, baseball teams -- and dance squads and bands and student councils -- are only tools. Their value lies in the way they are used, not in their mere existence.

By its decision, the school board has acknowledged that the highest use of extracurricular activities is to reinforce the district's academic mission.

A kind heart aches when a young person is deprived of an activity they enjoy. But a keen mind recognizes the injury that comes when little is expected of a student and even less is required.