By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006
By most every basketball measure, Lutheran Christian Academy in Philadelphia is among the most successful high school programs in the nation. More than a dozen of its athletes are currently playing at Division I colleges, including Georgetown and George Washington. And it has a 92-11 record over the past three seasons.
But among some college coaches, the private school has become a symbol of what they believe is one of the game's growing problems: prep schools with questionable academic programs that help players with deficient academic performances become eligible to play Division I sports.
The school does not have its own building or formal classrooms, and it operates out of a community center in a ragged North Philadelphia neighborhood. It has just one full-time employee: the basketball coach, a former sanitation worker who founded the school. One former student, who attended the school for three months, said it did not use traditional textbooks and that the coach, Darryl Schofield, was the only teacher.
Yet Lutheran Christian graduates remain a hot commodity for college recruiters.
"Prep schools are the biggest problem in our sport today, and Lutheran Christian Academy is one of the worst," said one college head coach, who has visited the school. Said an assistant coach, who recruits from schools in the Philadelphia area: "We don't recruit players from Lutheran. Lutheran's players aren't prepared academically to attend college, and we don't need those headaches."
Both coaches requested anonymity in the belief that fellow coaches would ostracize them.
Schofield defended the school, saying it employs four part-time teachers who work with the school's 30 students, all male, and that the school offers a strong curriculum. He said the school affords opportunities to players who otherwise wouldn't be able to enroll in college.
Two current players on the team also said the school offers a legitimate curriculum. The NCAA Clearinghouse, which validates the transcripts of student-athletes for eligibility purposes, approved 35 courses offered by Lutheran Christian, according to the clearinghouse's Web site.
"I was an AAU guy," said Schofield, referring to the popular youth basketball leagues across the country. "I didn't want to be one of the hypocrites that used the kids and pumped them up all summer and then when they need help, we're not there for them."
According to Pennsylvania Department of Education records, the school graduated all seven of its seniors in the 2003-04 school year. Schofield said his players have an 80 percent graduation rate from college.
"Our success rate of kids graduating from college is very high, probably up there with the percentages of the prep schools in Boston," Schofield said. "It's evident that all the kids who have come through our program, they're doing well academically in college. I could care less about the basketball. Academics are the only thing I care about."The Prep School Scene
There are more than 1,000 college preparatory schools in the country. The ones with strong athletic programs often enroll players who have completed four years of high school without achieving the necessary grades and standardized test scores to attend and play basketball at a major university.
"Preparatory schools in general are to get kids intensive tutoring and support in an environment that is conducive to doing well academically, and in some cases take advantage of the additional resources that they have athletically to improve themselves," said Peter Roby, the director of Northwestern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, not speaking specifically about Lutheran Christian. "I don't think there is anything in the prep schools [model] that is an issue."
The money at stake in a young basketball player's career has made the schools attractive to players whose academic shortcomings would otherwise detour their athletic careers and knock them out of the development chain. That could be the difference between that player going on to college, being drafted in the NBA and earning a multimillion dollar contract, and falling out of the talent pipeline.
A player can repair his qualifications at a prep school in two ways: The NCAA admits student-athletes on a combination of grade-point average and college entrance exam score. The higher a player raises his GPA, the lower test score he needs and vice-versa. A player with a 2.5 GPA needs an 820 SAT score, for instance.
Nearly 100 college scouts attended the first two days of the National Prep School Invitational tournament this weekend at Keaney Gymnasium on the University of Rhode Island campus. Teams from 13 states and Canada competed, and the recruiters each paid $200 for a tournament program that consisted of little more than photocopied rosters.
Lutheran Christian, with 18 players from five states, the District and Canada, clearly was one of the most talented teams in the tournament. Theo Davis, a 6-foot-9 forward from Toronto, is being recruited by Gonzaga, Michigan and Texas-El Paso, according to Schofield. Michael Scott, a point guard from Philadelphia, has been offered scholarships by Rice, Columbia, George Washington and Jacksonville. Lawrence Williams, an imposing 6-8 forward from Brooklyn, N.Y., already has decided he will attend Texas El-Paso on a scholarship, Schofield said.
Among the Lutheran Christian products currently in college, George Washington guard Maureece Rice, one of the No. 8 Colonials' top reserve players, spent one year at the school after he failed to graduate from a public school in Philadelphia and abruptly left a more established preparatory school in North Carolina.
"I never saw him in a game, just saw him in a couple of workouts. My thing about him was, I kept asking myself, 'Why isn't everybody killing to get this kid?' " George Washington Coach Karl Hobbs said. "I thought something was wrong. I thought I was missing something, like he was a crazy kid. I trust his [high school] coach and his coach told me, 'Give this kid a chance and I promise you'll be happy.' I don't know much about the school. I'm just happy we gave him the opportunity."
Rice could not be reached for comment.
Georgetown freshman Marc Egerson played last year at Lutheran Christian after failing to graduate from Glasgow High School in Newark, Del.
Georgetown spokesman Bill Shapland said the school would not comment for this report.
In addition to Georgetown and George Washington, Lutheran Christian has sent players to Mississippi State, Massachusetts and Temple, among others, even though the school doesn't even have a gymnasium.
The community center belongs to Helping Energize and Rebuild Ourselves Inc., a nonprofit. The only sign of the school inside is a framed picture of the basketball team hanging on a wall. The single-story building has bars on its windows and graffiti markings etched over its red-painted exterior, but it's still the cornerstone of its neighborhood.
Down the street, the Resurrection Life Church looks as if it is in need of salvation; the doors are boarded, and a sign states that it will reopen "sometime in 2006." Directly across the street from HERO is an abandoned apartment building, with seven stories of shattered windows.
The community center has about seven rooms, two of which are used by the school, center director Doris Phillips said. Grade-schoolers take computer classes in the lab and a motorcycle club meets there regularly. Yesterday, a child's birthday party was being held there.
Lutheran Christian has used the center for more than three years, Phillips said. She said she has seen about 20 male students and one teacher arrive on weekdays at 9 a.m. and spend about five hours in HERO's banquet hall. Yesterday the room was set up a little like a classroom, but there were no desks. The room is filled with several white plastic tables, with two chairs pushed into each table. Phillips said that some weeks Lutheran Christian holds school five days. Other weeks, Phillips said, the students come three or four times.
"We don't get too involved in the school. It all happens through Schofield," Phillips said. "We try to help them as much as we can by giving them space, but they pretty much just come and go. With their basketball schedule, you never know when you'll see them."
Phillips said Schofield uses the banquet hall for about 20 hours in an average week. Sometimes, the school moves into a small computer lab down the hall.
"I know they have a lot of recruiters come and talk to them and stuff like that," Phillips said. "And then they have some school lessons."
Schofield, 37, said he was a sanitation worker for the city of Philadelphia before opening the school with David Anwar, now the director of basketball operations at Texas El-Paso. Schofield said he has an associate's degree from Thaddeus Stevens, a two-year community college in Lancaster, Pa.
Lutheran Christian is licensed as a religious institution by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which reports on its database that the school opened Sept. 1, 2003. Schofield said the school is currently not directly affiliated with a church.
Schofield said the school has four part-time instructors: two former players with bachelor's degrees who returned to teach at Lutheran Christian and two women. One of them, Tamara Casey, has listed her residence as one of the houses Schofield said he owns. One current player said Casey taught him in three courses. Property records show that house is owned by Schofield's parents. When asked for the name of the second instructor, Schofield couldn't recall it, calling her "Mrs. Robinson." None of the players he asked could remember Robinson's first name, either.
Casey and Robinson could not be reached for comment.
Lutheran Christian guard Delonte Taylor, from H.D. Woodson High, said he enrolled at the school on the recommendation of his cousin, Chris Matthews, a former player at the school and now a freshman at Washington State. Matthews played three seasons at National Christian Academy before transferring to Schofield's school. Taylor said he had a 3.66 GPA at H.D. Woodson, but didn't earn a qualifying score on standardized tests. Taylor said Lutheran Christian has helped him prepare to take the tests.
"The experience is great," Taylor said. "Basketball-wise, it's a lot more advanced than the D.C. public schools. The schoolwork is, too."
Guard David Tairu, a Post honorable mention All-Met selection as a senior at Crossland High School, is enrolled at Lutheran Christian as a junior this year. Tairu said he had a 2.189 GPA in high school and scored 720 on the SAT. By dropping back to his junior year at the academy, Tairu can retake some of his core courses and submit the new grades to the NCAA Clearinghouse.
"It's a legitimate school," Tairu said. "It's a second chance for me. It's a blessing to be here."
James Woodson, who has worked the front desk at HERO for five years, said he used to hold a 30-minute session each morning about how to dress and act. "Nobody would ever listen or pay attention," Woodson said. "I gave up a year or two ago. Now [Schofield] is the only one who works with them."
Schofield said Lutheran Christian teaches each of its 35 courses, including English, psychology, sociology, geometry, trigonometry, chemistry and Spanish and French, in what he calls "12 paces." Each student must pass an exam at the end of each pace, scoring 80 percent or better, before moving on to the next level, Schofield said.
Schofield said tuition is $5,000 but he normally receives only $2,000, which includes room and board for nonlocal students. Schofield said he earns about $7,000 working as the school's basketball coach and also works as a cook at a restaurant during the week. Schofield said the school has "tons and tons" of crates of books used for instruction, and said the school recently upgraded its computer lab to include 12 flat-screen computers and new educational software.
Phillips said the new computers were obtained by the center, not the school, with the help of a Pennsylvania congressman. And the former player, who attended the school for three months, said the school didn't have computers and didn't use textbooks in its instruction.
The former player and his mother both agreed to be interviewed for this story but later asked not to be identified for fear that Lutheran Christian players would retaliate.
"Schofield was my teacher," the former player said. "You would walk in this room about the size of a Foot Locker store and he'd hand you a gray booklet about the size of composition book. He'd say, 'Read it or you're not playing.' I never saw any computers. I saw some books laying around there, but we never used them. Schofield was there sometimes."
The former player's mother said she worried her son wasn't doing much at the school other than playing basketball.
"I was trying to figure out if the kids were going to school," the former player's mother said. "When I'd ask [her son] how school was going, he'd say he only had one teacher. I asked him who the teacher was and he said, 'Schofield.' "
The former player said he enrolled at Lutheran Christian after Schofield promised a disciplined, rigorous academic program that enabled his players to improve their academics and basketball skills. The program was so successful, Schofield told the former player, that each of the players who had graduated from the school played basketball in college.
Instead, the former player and his mother said, they found an unstructured academic environment. The former player and his mother said nearly a dozen of the school's basketball players lived in a cramped apartment owned by Schofield. She said the apartment lacked sufficient heat and the players had to turn on the oven and open the door to heat the room.
Schofield said his players never lacked heat and he often spends more than $500 a month heating their residences. He said yesterday that the players now live in three properties.
"It wasn't what I thought it was going to be," said the former player, who now attends another college preparatory school. "I thought it was going to be an opportunity to get my grades up and get more exposure to college coaches. But it ended up being a big step back."
Schofield said most of the basketball players come to him through recommendations of high school coaches and former players. Schofield said he interviews the player and his parents or guardians and decides whether to admit them. If the player has severe academic deficiencies, he can still be admitted if he produces positive character references. "I don't turn anybody down," Schofield said.
The Post obtained the transcript of one player who enrolled at Lutheran. The player left high school as a junior after the 2003-04 school year. He had repeated the ninth grade and had a 1.33 GPA in the core courses in English, math, hard science and social sciences the NCAA requires for initial athletic eligibility at a four-year college.
According to the transcript, the player made grades of C or better in only three of the 14 core courses needed for initial eligibility and had not yet made the minimum score needed on the SAT or ACT. During one academic year at Lutheran Christian, the player passed six core courses, making four grades of A and two of B. He also scored high enough on the SAT to qualify for admission to a major university.
Schofield said Rice had similar academic problems when he enrolled at Lutheran Christian.
"When we first started, we had to take the kids no one else wanted," Schofield said. "When we started, I was a little afraid myself because I grew up in the inner city. But those were the kids we had to save. We butted heads every day for about a year. But it was the right thing to do, so why fix it if it isn't broken?"
Staff writers Eli Saslow, Camille Powell, Eric Prisbell and Steven Goff, and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report. Saslow and Goff reported from Philadelphia.
Lutheran Christian Academy in Philadelphia has amassed an impressive record on the court, but its questionable academics have come under scrutiny.