Higher standards right call for Whalers

While its intentions may be good, the New London Board of Education is sending the wrong message by abandoning a policy that would have required students to maintain a minimum 1.7 grade point average - equivalent to a C- - to remain eligible to play sports.

Discussion of a tougher academic policy began with the prior Board of Education. The board, however, underwent major changes in membership after the November election. In this instance, at least, the change is not for the better.

The proposed policy, which the new board has rejected, would have required student athletes to maintain at least a 1.7 GPA starting next school year. It would have boosted the standard to 2.0 GPA - a C average - the following year.

In abandoning the policy, board members expressed concerns that academically poor performing students, if denied the ability to keep playing sports, would lose interest in school altogether, either dropping out or continuing with no real interest or motivation.

"For some kids, sports is all they have," said school board member Barbara Major.

If some students do indeed think sports are all they have, then they are getting the wrong signals. What students have, in addition to sports, is an opportunity to get an education that will provide them opportunities to achieve success in life, become informed citizens and contribute to society.

Participation in sports and other extracurricular activities has many benefits, including improved self-esteem, learning to work as part of a group and reducing idle time and the mischief that it can lead to. But for all but a very few, success on the athletic field will be fleeting.

The message, always, must be that education is the priority. Fond memories of past glories in high school sports are wonderful, but academic achievement will open doors to trade schools, colleges and job opportunities.

We also reject the notion that some students are incapable of getting a C average and so it would be unfair to penalize them by making them ineligible for sports. Given the proper support at school, any student who puts in the effort can achieve that much and far more.

We recognize that some students face difficult circumstances at home: dysfunctional family structures, a lack of emphasis on education, poverty. All the more reason to stress academics and make it clear to students that they can only participate in the thing they perhaps most enjoy if they keep those grades up. For 99.9 percent of such students it will be education, not athletics, which will provide the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.

The new proposed policy, drafted by football coach and athletic director Jeff Larson, and still subject to final approval, would require mandatory academic support, in the form of study halls and tutoring, for students whose GPA falls below 2.26. The philosophy is that poor performing students will get the extra help they need, while continuing to play sports.

The mandatory academic assistance for poor performers is a good idea, as much as that will be possible given fiscal constraints, but it should not displace the requirement for maintaining at least a C average to play. An unmotivated student will not learn no matter how much extra help he or she gets. For some, keeping the grades up in order to play will provide that motivation.

We also take this opportunity to decry the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference's woefully weak academic eligibility rules that only require a student to be passing four classes, even if that means straight Ds. The CIAC needs to raise those standards. In the meantime, high schools should set their own, more rigorous academic requirements.

The athletic successes of the New London Whalers are legendary and a source of great community pride. Now is the time for a commitment to add academic achievement to that story of Whaler success. We urge the New London school board to reconsider its decision.

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