Student-athletes meet district's GPA challenge

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Coaches have long known that athletes get stronger and faster when their muscles are repeatedly taxed -- optimally, to the point of near exhaustion.

Recent results reported by the Beaufort County School District suggests student-athletes' brains react similarly to a challenge.

District student-services officer Gregory A. McCord delivered good news to the school board at its meeting Tuesday: More student-athletes retained their academic eligibility this past school year under stricter requirements adopted in 2011.

Ninety-four percent of student-athletes met the district's 2.0 grade point average requirement -- the overall total rising one percentage point from the fall-winter semester.

Only one other state district, Richland County School District 1, has a similar policy, McCord said. There is a reason for that: Too often, the prevailing reasoning is that higher standards mean more kids will be prohibited from an activity that lends structure to their lives and "keeps them out of trouble."

The members of the 2011 board are to be commended for bucking this easy-way-out thinking by adopting the policy, and those who had their doubts back then are to be commended for giving the policy a fair trial.

The policy was designed to exceed the academic requirements set by the S.C. High School League, the sanctioning body for public high school athletics. The league's policy requires that a student pass four or five classes in the semester preceding the start of a sports season and treats a "D" as a passing grade. As such, it is possible for a student with a GPA of less than 1.0 to remain eligible under state rules.

In the year before the Beaufort County School District adopted its tougher standards, 233 student-athletes -- 13 percent -- had GPAs below 2.0, but only 15 were ineligible according to the High School League. Using the statistics McCord reported Tuesday as a baseline, had those student-athletes been challenged as today's are, 125 or so might have improved their academic performance and still been eligible for athletics.

Further, Beaufort County's teams have remained competitive (even though victories should not be the primary aim of scholastic athletics.)

For example, Hilton Head Island High School won its third consecutive High School League Class 3-A Director's Cup -- determined by the on-field performance of all varsity teams -- and Whale Branch Early College High School finished in the top 10 in the Class 1-A race for the cup. Bluffton High School's football team finished 11-3 and advanced to the Class 4-A Lower State finals. County athletes finished first or second in more than two dozen team and individual state-championship competitions.

Two years of results is insufficient to declare the policy an unequivocal success, but the district's policy promises long-term gains because it not only imposes a tougher standard, it also couples it with support. Coaches must monitor their athletes' grades more closely than before, and mandatory tutoring for borderline students keeps many on the right side of the 2.0 boundary.

Moreover, this policy keeps the focus on student-athletes' studies, where it belongs.

And naysayers' worst fears notwithstanding, it reinforces perhaps the most important lesson imparted by both athletics and academics: Realistic challenges spur results; they don't thwart them.