The state school board voted Tuesday to recommend that students maintain a C average to be able to play sports in public high schools over concerns raised by some educators and coaches that marginal students might drop out without the incentive of sports.
The decision, passed with two dissenting votes on the 12-member board, will take effect next school year. While advocates say the minimum grade standard will motivate student athletes to do better in school, critics, including board member Kate Walsh, who voted against the standard, say schools should not discourage struggling students from staying in school.
"You can feel good that you have upheld standards, but to what end?" Walsh said. "I would rather have them in school."
While the new guidelines are not binding on school systems, most are expected to adhere to them. But it's unclear whether the new standard would render more students ineligible to play sports on school teams. Sixteen of 24 districts already require a 2.0 grade point average for a student to be able to play, and the remaining eight districts have some other minimum standard.
In Baltimore city and county, for example, a student cannot have more than one failing grade in the previous marking period. Baltimore City's minimum requirement kept Forest Park High School's junior varsity and varsity football teams from playing the entire season. The two teams forfeited because so many players were academically ineligible.
A bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly last session required the state school board to submit recommendations on minimum academic standards by the end of this year. The state has no requirements that students in other extracurricular activities, such as band or clubs, maintain a certain grade point average.
Ronald Belinko, coordinator of athletics for Baltimore County, said he believes the push for a statewide recommendation stemmed from coaches who complained that state championships were won and lost based on different standards in different counties. He said several coaches in the county weren't happy with the new guidelines, in part because it could take away an incentive for struggling students to come to school.
"There are some districts that are saying we are not winning state championships in certain sports because we have a 2.0 or 2.5. That was the underlying tone," Belinko said. "If we are taking something away from a student that would motivate them to come to school, I don't think that is right."
Baltimore City schools spokeswoman Edie House said in statement it's important that student athletes be "striving toward excellence on and off the field, especially in the classroom" and that the school system plans to get public input on how to implement the state's recommendation.
Local superintendents also objected to the minimum standard because they believe the legislature intervened in an area that should be the purview of local school boards. "Superintendents can live with the recommendation, but they believe it is a local board issue," said Carl Roberts, who represents the state's 24 superintendents.
Carroll, Cecil, Garrett, Harford, Kent and Washington counties also do not have a 2.0 minimum grade point standard for student athletes but impose some other eligibility requirement.
Belinko, for one, said he believes the current Baltimore County standard may be just as stringent as the statewide recommendation.
Baltimore County allows no exceptions to its policy, so students who have more than one failing grade during the season will have to stop playing the sport when their report cards come out. But in other counties, he said, students can start playing a sport with a 2.0 and keep playing even when their grades drop. Still, Baltimore County students who are just barely passing classes can currently continue to play as long as they don't fail.
Belinko said one unintended consequence of the new policy may be that solid students who are not in danger of failing any courses will not risk taking higher-level or Advanced Placement classes for fear that if they do poorly they would become ineligible.
The state board's recommendations give local jurisdictions the flexibility to interpret them differently.
Some school systems may decide to allow students who have improved their grades during an interim grade reporting period to get back onto a team, while others may not. And some systems may give principals discretion in exempting students who they believe may have extenuating circumstances, such as a traumatic event in their lives, so that they can continue playing sports.
Brian Lennon, 43, attended the state school board meeting Tuesday to oppose a uniform standard in the state. A graduate of Baltimore County schools, he said he was humiliated in high school when he failed two subjects and wasn't allowed to play baseball. Because he couldn't play, his friends knew he was failing and teased him.
The following year, he was able to play and he went on to get his associate degree at a community college. But, he said, some students can work as hard as they can and still not maintain a 2.0 average.
"What they just did is wrong," he said.