Raise the academic bar

Published 8:53 am Saturday, December 27, 2008

George W. Bush, who won’t likely be remembered for his eloquence or profoundness, showed a flash of both in his first presidential campaign when he condemned the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in America’s public schools.

Eight years later, that bigotry still grips Franklin, where school administrators are fiercely resisting efforts to put the academic achievement of students above their performance on the athletic fields.

Led by Assistant Superintendent Ricky Clemons and Franklin High School Principal Sam Jones, an in-house committee appointed by the school board put forth a weak proposal to raise the minimum grade-point average that students must earn to be eligible for participation in extracurricular activities.

School board members wisely snubbed the recommendation, which would have raised the grade standard from an embarrassing 1.25 to a slightly less embarrassing 1.5. The committee was sent back to the drawing board.

Its refusal to do the right thing the first time should have school board members rethinking the committee’s makeup. A retooled committee should include a couple of local employers, who can speak to the relative value in the workforce of a good grade-point average versus a letterman’s jacket.

I love football, basketball, baseball and marching bands as much as the next fellow. I played them all as a kid – and remain an avid fan today. Sports and other extracurricular activities have their place on high school and college campuses. They enhance a student’s educational and social experiences. Lessons learned and values shaped on the playing field can last a lifetime.

But to put those experiences on par with good old-fashioned classroom learning and book knowledge does a huge disservice to the students whom the lax GPA requirements are designed to protect.

The current GPA standard sells short students who are capable of succeeding academically. It “dumbs down” the entire educational system because of educators’ lack of confidence in our young people. Shamefully, it assumes that athletes either are incapable of succeeding in the classroom or unwilling to put forth the necessary effort. Its proponents suggest that the nearly one-fourth of Franklin High extracurricular participants who would have been ineligible this year under a minimum 2.0 GPA would not reach higher if the bar were raised.

I’ve interviewed scores of job-seekers in my two decades as an employer. I often ask applicants about their biggest regret in life. Never once has a prospective employee wished that he’d spent more time in the weight room or practicing his jump shot or sharpening his curveball. Commonly, though, applicants regret dropping out of high school or failing to get a college education.

Requiring that athletes maintain a “C” average in the classroom is more than symbolic. It instills discipline and ensures that students put academics first. It reaffirms a fundamental truth in our society: that a solid educational foundation enhances one’s quality of life and odds of success as an adult.

Franklin has won two state football championships in the past five years. That’s impressive — a source of tremendous pride for not just Franklin High School but the entire community.

A successful school division, though, will be known for more than its football team. It’s time to produce more winners in the classroom and turn out a new generation of productive citizens.