Making the grade

BPS academic coaches put the student in student-athlete

By Justin A. Rice

In December, about 30 members of the Brighton High football team traveled to Franklin High and defeated Tri-County, 8-6, to earn a berth to the MIAA Division 4A Super Bowl against Northeast High at Bentley University.

Report cards were dispatched to parents two days before the big game.

“We came with only 15 players today, we lost a lot of players due to ineligibility,” Brighton senior Kevin DePina said after the 22-12 Super Bowl loss to Northeast. “We had a short team and we still played hard. They predicted we were going to lose 42-18 and it was a close game.

“We only had 15 [today], we came 50 strong in August.”

Each quarter in Boston Public Schools, a rash of ineligibility spreads as soon as report cards hit the streets, a long-standing trend in the district.

But now the fight against academic ineligibility no longer falls on the shoulders of athletic coaches alone. This winter the Boston Scholar Athlete program (BSA) alleviated some of that weight off the shoulders of BPS coaches by providing all 32 boys’ and girls’ varsity basketball teams academic coaches to run study halls, collect progress reports and monitor the student-athletes’ overall classroom performance.

“Without her none of us would make the team, she really helps,” English high senior forward Rashad Paultau said of his academic coach Rene Patten. “Without academic coaches it’s hard to stay on track and motivated. If she wasn’t there most of the team would’ve failed off the team.

“I noticed this year we really worked together, we helped each other academically and helped each other say on the team.”

The BSA program — a $5 million effort launched and funded by Suffolk Construction’s Red & Blue Foundation last August to revitalize BPS athletics — plans to extend the program this spring during the baseball and softball season. Football, volleyball, soccer and basketball coaches also have the opportunity to do academic/conditioning programs this spring as well.

“That’s the mission of the BSA program, to improve the academic excellence of students through the vehicle of athletics,” said Katharine Meade, executive academic officer at BSA. “It’s gone well. We had our success stories, we had our obstacles. The most successful stories resulted from strong collaboration with athletic coaches and academic coaches.

“We’ve only had positive feedback from study halls. ‘Finally,’ Student-Athletes said, ‘I have time to do my work.’ Many Student-Athletes never had structured time to do homework and when they got home from practice they were too tired.”

While some might say this is another example of athletes getting special treatment, Meade points out that the program does not just serve at-risk students.

“We’re serving entire teams so they can work together,” she said. “So they don’t see study hall as a punishment but a benefit of being a student athlete. It has brought teams closer together and they have learned new strategies for supporting one another both on the court and in the classroom.”

The English High boys’ basketball program is an example of how positive peer pressure promoted an emphasis on academics among the players; once the seniors started studying nobody wanted to be seen as falling out of line.

“Most of the freshman look up to me,” English High senior guard Alex DoSouto said. “They respect me when I tell them to do something. When I tell them to do school [work] they just do it.”

For years that peer pressure worked in the opposite direction at English. During English High’s basketball boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Coach Barry Robinson ran study halls and SAT prep classes and chased down his players to make sure they attended class and did their work. But he burned himself out and in the mid 2000s not much homework was done in his pre-practice study hall sessions.

“One person trying to do it all, I can’t do it,” Robinson told me when I spent the 2005 season with his team reporting my master’s thesis, a year when five players flunked off the team. “If I beat the bush, am I doing it so they will pass so they can play?”

Patten—the team’s academic coach who Robinson called the team’s “den mother”—actually started working with the squad last season and saw that every player was not only eligible but also went on to either a two-year or four-year college.

Now Robinson, who was named BSA’s Coach of the Year for the City League South division, says he feels like he has at least another 10 years of coaching in him.

“I feel rejuvenated,” he said. “I feel great. The help is there.”

Patten said the only difference between last year and this year with the BSA program is she actually has a support system. She is able to get supplies such as granola bars, notebooks and binders. She also receives a stipend from BSA. The academic coaches have a chance to earn a mid-season bonus as well.

“Before it was just Coach Rob and now I can go to outside resources,” said Patten, who also helps proctor the SATs when her players are taking them. “It’s good to know you’re being supported and it’s taken seriously.”

Another reason English—the nation’s first public high school which became a pilot school about four years ago—is a shining success story is because new headmaster, Dr. Sito Narcisse, recently decided to hold his student-athletes to a higher standard. Only two players on the boys’ basketball team was academically ineligible this winter even though the minimum grade-point average to play interscholastic sports at English was raised to 2.0 from the citywide standard of 1.67.

“In that alone it shows the students had to raise the bar and they took it seriously,” Patten said.

The new standard didn’t go over so well at first, especially since BPS’s eligibility thresholds are already—controversially—higher than the Massachusetts’s Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), whose handbook states:

“A student must secure during the last marking period preceding the contest (e.g. second quarter marks and not semester grades determine third quarter eligibility) a passing grade, and full credit, in the equivalent of four traditional year long major English courses.”

Since MIAA rules are that a player only has to pass four classes to play, hypothetically a BPS player could be eligible to play in the MIAA-sanctioned post season but not in the City League. When BPS raised its standards above the MIAA’s, some coaches, including Robinson, argued that the threshold should be the same as the MIAA’s because city schools don’t have as many resources as suburban schools. Plus, they argue that sport can be a hook to keep at-risk students in school and off the streets.

Now Robinson said he has “somewhat” changed his views and proudly said that English is talking about raising the bar to a 2.2 for next winter.

“Let’s face it, nobody is coming into the city and looking at these kids,” Robinson said of college recruiters. “If these kids have a chance other than a two-year college we have to raise the bar because we have the athletes in the city.”

Despite the success this season, Patten said she’ll remain on the fence about if raising the standards to play is a good thing until she has more data. She says she has students she knows would drop out if they couldn’t play sports.

DoSouto, whose former thug life was recently chronicled in a story in the Boston Globe, falls into that category. Coming into English High with a 1.8 GPA, DoSouto now carries a 2.16 and has his eyes on college.

“At first I thought I wasn’t going to make it, I thought it would be too much work,” he told me when I asked about hitting the new 2.0 mark. “But after [attending] the study halls and staying after school and stuff it was pretty easy.”

But even after his academic rehabilitation, DoSouto says he would probably quit school if basketball was taken away from him.

“No, I wouldn’t come back to school ’cause that’s my motivation to come to school every day,” he told me. “If I can’t play basketball I will not come to school.”

On the other hand, Aaron Couture, who coaches soccer at West Roxbury High and was the academic coach for the girls’ basketball team, said he knows a lot of students who won’t participate in sports until their grades are up to par.

“I see the rationale behind both sides,” he said. “I think this is the first year of academic coaching for student athletes in the City of Boston and over time you’ll see a blend of [both strategies].

“Like anything, it takes a couple years for the culture to change. Eventually you’ll see a nice marriage.”

Perhaps when that time comes there will fewer stories of academic plunges like the one that depleted the Brighton High football team just a few days before the Super Bowl.

“Gotta get the grades first, we preached that and they didn’t listen and we suffered,” Brighton coach James Phillips said after the Dec. 5 loss to Northeast High at Bentley College. “That’s alright, they’re teenagers. They’ll have another day. They’ll grow up. We have nothing to be ashamed of.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Making the grade

  1. Miles hinton

    Hey Justin not sure if you remember me but I played for Boston English in the 05-06 season I remember you with us compiling your story for your thesis this is crazy try to email me when you get some time.

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