The benefits of education-based athletics are numerous. But, the benefits are only fully enjoyed if student-athletes remain eligible.
Like many high schools, Westview High School in Avondale, Arizona, checked student-athletes’ grades infrequently and often struggled to help them keep their grades up and stay on the court or field. As the school’s new athletic director, Tonya Lee was given the opportunity to find a better way to monitor athletes’ grades.
“I came from a school where, as a coach, we checked (grades) every week and were constantly monitoring grades,” Lee said.
With that background, the school district’s athletic director tabbed Lee to chair a committee comprised of all district athletic directors, coaches and principals to address the district’s eligibility issues. At the time, athletes’ grades were only checked once halfway through a nine-week quarter. If an athlete was failing classes, he or she would have no chance to regain eligibility until after the nine-week period, causing some to miss nearly a month of a season. In some cases, the loss of eligible athletes caused the cancellation of entire seasons.
“In the committee’s opinion, student-athletes lost motivation in their sport and the classroom with such long grade checks,” Lee said. “At grade-check periods, with some teams, there would be a significant drop in attendance. One (school) site cancelled its freshman football program, and many of us had to cancel our freshman softball and baseball programs after grade checks.”
The committee decided that increasing the number of grade checks would not only keep student-athletes aware of their progress but offer more opportunities to regain eligibility. Beginning this year, a new district-wide process requires at least three grade checks per quarter. Starting at three weeks, all student-athletes are checked. If any are failing, they must sit out for one week and grades are then checked again the next week for those who failed. Any remaining failing students are again required to sit out a week. The next week all athletes’ grades are checked again and the process repeats.
“In most cases, the nine-week check was the kiss of death for some athletes,” Lee said. “If they lost their eligibility, they were not able to regain it until the team made the playoffs. Now they know that they will not have to sit out more than one week if they get their grades up. I think it has empowered our student-athletes to own their grades and their work.”
Lee has been heavily involved in the grade-check process, but the buy-in from coaches and teachers has been essential to the new program’s success. Lee recommends early communication among coaches, teachers and grade monitors to any school district looking to implement “real-time” grade checks. She said Westview’s coaches are optimistic about the new system and excited to give athletes the opportunity to hold themselves accountable.
“As a swimmer, two weeks before a qualifying invitational I was ineligible,” said junior Howard Luekenga. “With the old system, I would have been out for four weeks and missed the qualifier. This year, I was able to get my grade up and still attend the qualifying meet. I actually qualified for state at that meet where I finished ninth in state.”
Nate Young is a junior football player who has also seen the benefit of the new system.
“It gives the students a chance to come back,” he said. “I sat out two weeks and worked harder in the classroom those two weeks to get my grades up so I wouldn’t disappoint my teammates any further.”
During this first year in practice, some of the biggest challenges, according to Lee, are tracking grades properly and encouraging teachers to keep their gradebooks accurate. But, overall, the school’s athletic culture has shifted dramatically.
“It has been a full turnaround in student-athletes caring about their grades again,” Lee said. “They are always checking their grades on their phones and reminding their teachers to put their grades in.”
Chris Boone is the assistant director of publications/communications at the NFHS.