Whalers can set academic pace

The policy committee of the New London Board of Education endorsed guidelines Tuesday creating minimum academic eligibility standards for student athletes. The proposed policies are reasonable, would provide underachieving students the means to improve academic performance, and contain necessary safeguards. Students in other extracurricular activities would face the same standards.

We urge the Board of Education to adopt the committee's proposal.

In large part, the plan is a return to the academic policy proposal developed by the athletic director with the blessing of the prior school board. The newly elected board, after major changes in the November election, was exploring instead a policy that called for increased levels of academic support for student athletes with poor academic performance, but moved away from strict eligibility requirements.

The policy committee on Tuesday voted to rescind that approach in favor of the original grade-point average requirement. That's the right choice and one we suspect most parents and the public will support.

Starting next school year athletes and others taking part in extracurricular activities would have to maintain at least a C- average, meaning 1.7 GPA. Students falling below that standard would be placed on a five-week academic probation. They would have to attend academic support sessions one hour daily, be present and on time for classes and complete classroom assignments.

Athletes could continue to practice, but not play in games, during the probation period. If at the end of five weeks a student's grades improved enough to meet the 1.7 standard, the student could return to the playing field or the activity he or she participates in.

In the 2013-2014 the standard would increase to 2.0 GPA, meaning a C average.

Some have expressed fears that student athletes who do not meet the requirement and find themselves unable to participate in competition will give up to despondency. They warn these students "will be lost to the streets" if they can't keep playing.

Let's give our New London athletes more credit than that. The vast majority will have no trouble meeting the standards. And most who do struggle on the academic margins will rise to the challenge of improving their grades, especially if the promised extra help is available.

Most importantly, if the school board adopts this policy it will send the message that education is the priority. Sports accolades quickly fade into the past, while education provides the chance at a better future, a good job and an enriched life.

Granted, some students face almost unbreachable obstacles to academic performance, such as homelessness, domestic violence, negligent parenting and severe emotional issues. That is why we welcome the inclusion in the policy of an appeals process. It creates a Mitigating Circumstances Committee. If special circumstances contribute to poor academic performance, the committee could recommend to the superintendent that he allow the student to keep participating in extracurricular activities despite a low GPA.

These recommended GPA requirements would go well beyond the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference athlete eligibility standards. Taking the tougher path would be another source of pride for the New London Whalers and a challenge to other high-school athletic programs to raise their standards as well.

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