The following is the first in a series of blog posts about English High’s basketball team and the school’s efforts to hold their athletes to higher academic standards. The posts are a follow up to the Boston Globe Magazine story I wrote about the school increasing its eligibility threshold for athletes to a district-high 2.5 GPA. The majority of the athletes in the city can play with a 1.67 GPA. English opens its season today at 5 p.m.versus a team from Sydney Australia.
By Justin A. Rice
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, 13 basketball players are crammed into Room 222 in Boston English High School. Some are doing homework while others are chatting, reading a high school sports magazine or listening to music through headphones.
“I don’t see you doing work, if you’re in here I need you doing something,” said Marissa Rodriquez, who runs school’s academic resource room for athletes (known as an Academic Zone) funded by the Boston Scholar Athlete Program.
“If you are going to talk leave the Zone,” one played pleaded as Rodriquez left to check on other teams in the Zone.
It’s not just the first official day of basketball tryouts but it was also the day report cards were mailed home to parents. The final rung on English High’s three-year progressive plan to hold its athletes to higher academic standards was put in place at the start of the semester and today is judgment day.
Of the 55 kids who signed up for basketball, 32 of them reached the new academic standard (a 2.5 GPA) needed to play this winter.
“They said we couldn’t do it, we did it,” senior captain Tyrone Williams said a few weeks earlier on the last day of the marking period. “When we come out this year we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
The Jamaica Plain school is a “turnaround schools” in danger of being put into receivership by the state and as part of the school’s turnaround strategies, English required athletes to maintain a 2.0 grade point average starting in fall 2009 in order to play that winter season. That standard jumped to a 2.2 last year, and is now a 2.5. The controversial policy is far more rigorous than the district-wide 1.67 eligibility requirement (a C minus average).
Rodriquez comes back in the room a few minutes later with an insulated box filled with packages of gram cracker snacks called Bug Bites and mini juice cartons that would just as easily fit in at an elementary school.
“Stanley, you’ve been working hard the whole time you’ve been here,” she says tossing him a carton of juice. “Alright, I’ll check back.”
A few minutes later the constant chatter in the room suddenly stops when the varsity basketball coach, Barry Robinson, who is known as Coach Rob, walks into the room wearing a black track suit, sporting a cleanly shaven head and a handful of his own snacks to distribute: a Styrofoam take out box with a hamburger and fries and a few oranges.
“Any of you seniors want any, come up,” he said in his thick Jamaican accent as four or five seniors lined up to take fistfuls of french-fries. “Make sure you leave some [for the underclassmen].”
Toward the end of study hall Coach Rob assembled his coaching staff and the two team captains, Tyrone Williams and Wiley Shipman, in a conference room in the library to discuss how the first day of tryouts would go.
“We had 55 kids signed up and 32 of them made a 2.5,” Coach Rob began.
“That’s impressive,” jayvee coach Claude Prichard says.
“Fifty-eight percent [are eligible] and there’s probably going to be some more because there’s a couple of kids that told me they are going to try out. … That is very impressive. The other good news is every kid that I kind of pegged or penciled for varsity made it, so that’s good.
“Having said that, we want to be excited about it but we can’t for the simple fact that now that the second marking period has started and we’re three weeks into the marking term, we cannot celebrate or get excited. We got to put the iron to the floor and burn that sucker.”
Coach Rob told the group that the school implemented a new online tracking system for every student that allows parents, teachers, coaches and administrators to monitor their progress in all of their classes in real time. In the past Coach Rob gave his players a progress report form that they had to have physically signed by all their teachers each week or they couldn’t play.
“So I’m pretty thrilled about how we can monitor them every day rather than giving them progress reports; that’s old school stuff,” he said. “We used to give them a progress report and they’d give it back to us at the end of the week and it looks good and all that kind of stuff. But now we can actually see how many assignments they miss, homework, failed tests. We can know percentage wise where they are in a class and how they can really bump it up.
“So at the end of the marking period or close to the end of the marking period or after the marking period no kid should be going to no teachers asking them to change a grade. We are not going to have that this term. Everything is right there in front of us and we know if kids took care of business. So the marking period has ended and we don’t have no kid on the bubble waiting to change a grade. We’re not doing all that kind of stuff. We’re going in a different direction. We’re pretty solid as far as all that stuff goes.”
The trick now, Coach Rob says, will be to make sure the players maintain their grades during the rigors of the season, which begins tonight against a team from Sydney Australia.
“Can we keep those 32 [eligible],” Coach Rob asked his coaches. “I think we can.”
After the meeting with the coaches and just before tryouts started, the school ‘s headmaster, Dr. Sito Narcisse told me he wasn’t satisfied with only 58 percent making the 2.5 GPA this fall.
“I told them it’s too low, we need 100 percent,” Narcisse said before breaking out into laughter that sounded like he was gargling water at the same time. “We need a 100 percent. [Coach Rob] told me I got issues.
“I told him I know. I keep pushing. … I think the most important thing is that the kids believe they can do it. I think that’s the shift in the culture. Not the standards not the policies. We got the kids believing in it and when you get people believing in themselves that’s 90 percent of the battle. As you put support systems in everything is about confidence and belief.”
Both Coach Rob and Narcisse told me that they are not looking for vindication on the court despite the fact that many of the critics say that English won’t be able to field winning teams with their new rigorous standards. English says they will compete in every game and the winning will come eventually.
They say that their goal is to compete in every game and it’s not like they are working with different athletes than if they had a 1.67 standard, they just got those same athletes to improve their GPAs.
“We just got the kids who didn’t do well academically to get the grades to play,” the headmaster says. “What is the superstar got to have a 1.2? … I think it’s important for kid to do overall well in school period.
“We’re not just giving kids’ school. I want them to have an experience. It’s an experience where it’s like ‘Hey I been part of something I can accomplish and do anything.’ I tell these kids you’re tougher than you think. You’ve been through more things than more people have not. That’s how I look at it. We’re giving them an experience.
“So tell the critics keep critiquing, do what you do best. At the end of the day what we’re going to be clear on is culturally this is going to be a very different place academically because look at how many kids we got out here. … I can show you some of these boys, the same boys, who had less than a 2.5 GPA last year. Look at that, the starting team out there is still there. It’s not a bunch of new kids.”
With that I lace my sneakers up and took my place along the baseline to practice with the players. Back in 2005 when I reported my Master’s thesis for Northeastern University about English High’s basketball team I decided to play with the team to get to know the players.
That is my strategy again this year, only it turned out a little bit more bloody.
During one drill two guys line up on the free throw line and roll the ball to another player on the opposite free throw line. The players who rolled the ball have to run down court and trap the player on the opposite end of the court. I tell the player I’m paired with that Wiley Shipman, one of the team captains, we are going against is going to try to split us, or dribble between us.
Sure enough Wiley did not only split us but he unintentionally split my nose open too in the process.
I felt blood and went the bathroom. Of course there is no paper towel or toilet paper in bathroom. I went back in the gym and the trainers were gone. One of the coaches tells a student on the sideline to let me in the trainer’s room, where I found paper towel and band aides.
After I get the bleeding under control I walk over to Wiley to pretend to give him a hard time.
“He’s gonna get bad press in your article now,” his teammates start to joke. “It’s the guy with F-R-E-S-H [carved] in the back of his head.”