Sunday, August 15, 1999

Sports policy aims to keep kids in school

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        He cannot help them if they are not there. This is his point. Kids who come to school have a chance to learn, to grow, to emerge as better people when they are done. Kids who drop out do not.

        Is it giving in? Is it selling children short? Come to 7th grade in the Cincinnati public schools. If you make Ds in math, language arts, social studies and science, you can still play sports. This is the new policy. This is the latest lowered bar. Is it bribery?

        Maybe. Could be. If you want to look at it that way.

        “It's almost like we're in the position of doing missionary work. Get them involved, keep them involved,” said Dave Dierker, the CPS athletic director. “We're trying to go on the offensive, to capture some kids we may lose otherwise.”

        Is this wrong? Shouldn't kids be expected to attend school, try hard, make the best grades they can? Shouldn't a school system get what it expects, not just what it's willing to put up with?

        Since when does lowering a standard help anyone?

        Some of us grew up taking school for granted. That is, if we skipped school, our parents would kill us. Dropping out was not an option. We also had two parents at home. Maybe our mothers were there in the afternoon, to ask us about our day.

        We who ask these questions had our own rooms. We had food in our bellies in the morning, before we caught the school bus. Someone was there to tell us good-bye and wish us a good day. We had successful people all around. It never occurred to us we'd be anything but successful.

        It is easy for us to judge. It is easy for us to say, “There they go again. More breaks for jocks. Don't make them learn anything. Reward them for their Ds.”

        What about the kids who work hard in the classroom? What does this say to them? Playing sports used to be an extra activity, after the class-work was done. It used to be a privilege. Privileges are earned, not bestowed.

        In our world, this makes sense. This is not our world.

Different world
        I know coaches in the city schools who would love it if all they had to do was coach. How easy it would be if they didn't have to counsel their players, drive them home after practice, help them apply for college scholarships, feed them and lend them money. What a great thing it would be if they didn't have to worry about filling a roster.

        Coaches in the suburbs or the parochial schools agonize over which kids to cut. Coaches in the city wish they had enough kids.

        There are great coaches all over, but the great ones make more impact in the city, because they are asked to do more. Bobby Kelly at Hughes is a saint. So is Vonn Banks at Aiken and George Jackson at Withrow. Kids who are exposed to these men can't help but be better for the experience.

        The problem is getting them there. It's an achievement now to get children to come to school. It is a triumph when they stay. If sports gets them there and helps them remain, is that bad? “We're throwing life preservers over the side,” is Dierker's description.

A couple of kids at a time
        It's sad it has come to this, but it has. The CPS standards are still higher than the state requirements, and nobody is suggesting Ds are the goal. But it is a desperate situation.

        “I don't know all the answers,” Dierker said, “but I know what we're doing now (a C average to participate) isn't working.”

        He has worked in a wealthy school system in New Jersey — “Richard Nixon lived down the street” — and he has worked at Mount Healthy. Dierker wishes Cincinnati were Nixon's old neighborhood. But he doesn't deal in wishes.

        “If we can use their involvement in sports to further another goal, why shouldn't we?” he asked.

        “There's a lot of potential out there. Let's go out and save the world a couple or three (kids) at a time.”

        It beats the alternative.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.