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The Challenges of School Reclassification for a State Associations

By Ken Tilley on March 11, 2015 hst Print

In his book, Leading Change in Your School: How to Conquer Myths, Build Commitment and Get Results, Douglas Reeves states that “change results in resistance because it is a loss – and the loss is often seen as the change of prior actions.”

Throughout the history of state high school associations, perhaps no issue has ruffled more feathers than reorganizing the classification structure of schools within the state. By nature, people are resistant to change, particularly when change involves ending traditions that span many years.

Many state associations reclassify on a regular basis, with the goal being that the changes are beneficial to the majority of schools in the state. Inevitably, however, some schools – and their parents and communities – are not pleased when reclassification occurs.

The Virginia High School League (VHSL) is in the second year of a major reorganization of its high school classification structure. Virginia moved from a three-class system to a six-class system during the 2013-14 school year. This was the most significant change in alignment and playoff structure in more than 40 years, and it was designed to accommodate the VHSL’s member schools as a whole.

Even though the concept had been discussed for at least four years, and more than 70 percent of the schools supported some increase in the number of classifications, and the change had been in the planning stages for 19 months, this new alignment was met with mixed reviews throughout the state among students, parents, communities, coaches, athletic administrators, principals and superintendents.

Some individuals viewed the change as an opportunity for more exposure while others were concerned about losing some of those entrenched traditions.

In making this landmark change, the VHSL had three primary objectives – equity in the sizes of the schools in each class, better balance for schools and more opportunities for participation in state championships.

The previous three-class system, which permitted schools to “play up” out of their natural size classification, eventually resulted in great disparities among the size of schools in each class, with ranges of more than 800, 1,500 and 2,100 students. The new system, in which schools are locked into a class and cannot play outside of their designated size, has ranges of 406, 234, 362, 350, 381 and 1,038. This is a great improvement from the nearly 2,200 range that existed in Class AAA alone. 

Regarding balance, the old format had 130, 86 and 97 schools in the three classes. The new system has between 50 and 54 schools in each class. Each of the 12 regions has between 24 and 28 schools now, whereas the old format had one region with just 16 schools while another had 39. Playoffs in all sports except football now begin at the conference level, and each region has four conferences with most conferences having six or seven schools.

The final goal was to provide more opportunities for kids and schools to experience the magic of our state playoffs. In meeting this goal, the VHSL expanded from 90 to 150 state championships. Overwhelmingly, schools, fans and participants who have had the opportunity to share in this magic have been excited.

“Before last year, we had never had a swimmer advance to state; we had two last year in the six-class format,” said Susan Bechtol, principal of Churchland High School in Portsmouth. “My swim coach called from regions this year to say we had four relay teams qualify for states, and they were thrilled to be going. From zero to two to 16-plus is quite an accomplishment. This has created a buzz at school that never existed before.”

Based on the three objectives, a review of the first year of reclassification would be overwhelmingly positive. After all, the core goals were met. Considering the preferences and needs of the vast majority of its 314 member schools, the VHSL can cite numerous successful experiences for its nearly 200,000 student participants.

Carroll County High School was one of just a few schools that ended up in a higher classification, facing larger schools in district play. But as sophomore basketball and soccer player Haley Turman observed, “The new district was good for us because we had a lot more competition. The travel times were a lot longer and it gave us a good way to bond as we passed the time. . . The new district is a good thing because it gives us more exposure and makes us work harder for what we want.”

As stated previously, however, not everyone was pleased with the changes. While our objectives met the needs of the majority of our schools, some with longstanding traditions were not as pleased.
Some schools and communities, which had been doing the same thing for more than 40 years – and in some cases doing it very well – resisted this reorganization emphatically. Most of the opposition was related to increased travel and loss of class time, wider span of geography, change in historical rivalries, greater costs with less income, and general confusion with the new system.

After one year of the new structure, some of these concerns are valid, but the overall objectives have been met and the process continues to be evaluated and tweaked by the VHSL Executive Committee, staff and leaders among the member schools.

Among the ideas being considered to correct some of the concerns from schools are:

  • Aligning every four years instead of the current two-year cycle in order to achieve more stability and avoid having schools bounce between classes, regions, conferences and districts so often.
  • Considering sectional pairings that would reduce travel within the regions during post-season play.
  • Giving regions the option of advancing fewer teams to certain playoffs to eliminate situations where teams with losing or significantly weaker records were paired with much stronger or more dominating opponents.

The topic of alignment and playoff formats remains a priority in Virginia. Representatives at the grassroots level meet regularly to review ways they can improve the system while still enjoying the many benefits that resulted from the significant changes.

Participation in high school activities is a huge positive component for our youth. All state high school associations, including Virginia, strive to provide as many meaningful and worthwhile opportunities as possible while students are in high school. While challenges will come, state associations are committed to doing what is best for all students. In Virginia, we strive to overcome the obstacles and allow more students opportunities to experience the magic.