By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee plans to amend a controversial rule passed on Oct. 4 that allowed D.C. public school athletes a fifth year to complete their eligibility.
Rhee said students will now be required to complete eligibility in four consecutive years upon entering ninth grade in high school.
"In some ways, this has been miscommunicated," Rhee said in an interview Thursday in her office. "Somebody [inside her office] brought it up and said we have to clarify it. That was the original intention, but when it was written up internally, we didn't put it in that it had to be four consecutive years. We have to clarify that."
Area athletic officials, informed yesterday that the rule would be altered, welcomed the change. Many coaches and athletic directors expressed concern when the provision was adopted that it could be exploited by students seeking an extra year to improve athletic performance, without regard to academic success. Further, coaches and administrators said it would make scheduling opponents more difficult.
"Absolutely, it's better," Eastern athletic director and boys' basketball coach Bernard Nedab said. "It absolutely restores a lot more faith in our system."
When the initial rule was announced, Washington Catholic Athletic Conference personnel were hesitant about playing the City Title games -- matchups involving the boys' and girls' basketball champions from the WCAC and the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association -- because WCAC schools generally do not play opponents with fifth-year seniors. Now, it appears the games will go on.
The clarification of the rule "would make sense," Gonzaga athletic director and football coach Joe Reyda said. "That's what we go by."
Amending the measure also eliminates the chance of DCPS students falling out of compliance with new NCAA initial eligibility requirements that do not allow incoming students to take more than one core curriculum course in a fifth year of high school.
Rhee acknowledged she was initially asked to change the rule upon a request from H.D. Woodson, which has a football player on this year's team who played as a ninth-grader at Johnson Junior High School and then repeated ninth grade the following year at Ballou High before transferring to Woodson.
"If we'd just granted an exception with this kid," she said, "we would have avoided a lot of this stuff."
Rhee also said she was persuaded to change the rule to accommodate all students making the transition from middle and junior highs to high school. This year, DCPS eliminated ninth grade in all middle and junior high schools, forcing students to take that grade at a high school.
Those who failed ninth grade at a middle or junior high, Rhee said, and had to repeat it at a high school, would be allowed to participate in athletics as 12th-graders as long as they do not turn 19 before July 1. She said, however, once the last students who took ninth grade at a middle or junior high have graduated from high school, this rule will be rendered unnecessary.
Rhee said she enacted the change on an emergency basis in the middle of the school year because she had just learned of the conditions regarding the ninth-grade transition. H.D. Woodson football coach Greg Fuller has said his school began petitioning former schools superintendent Clifford B. Janey last April for a rule change.
"It was brought to my attention in [late September], and I acted on it quickly," Rhee said. "If I was doing a favor for someone, I would have granted an exemption. This was more of a systemic issue. . . . If we didn't go through the ninth grade transition, we never would have done it."
The rule change should also alleviate scheduling concerns of DCIAA coaches about finding nonleague opponents.
"I was having problems scheduling some games [against teams from West Virginia and Pennsylvania] because they were wondering if we'd have fifth-year seniors, and whether or not we would hold them out of the games," Dunbar football coach Craig Jefferies said. "I guess I don't have to worry about that anymore."
Ken Tilley, the executive director of the Virginia High School League, said the District's rule complies with his membership's rules. Ned Sparks, executive director for the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said his membership allows students four years of eligibility if they begin play in the ninth grade and three years if they begin the 10th grade, unless the student turns 19 before Sept. 1.