D.C. public school student-athletes struggle to be eligible for college sports

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

From the moment she scored 31 points as a freshman in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game, it was evident Ronika Ransford had the skills to play college basketball at a top level. Sure enough, the H.D. Woodson star signed a letter-of-intent in November with Southeastern Conference power Georgia before she concluded her high school career in the McDonald's all-American game in April.

Ransford's journey to Georgia, however, nearly went off track. Like many standout athletes from D.C. Public Schools, she struggled to satisfy NCAA initial eligibility standards. It was not until midway through her senior year that she learned she was not going to fulfill the NCAA's minimum 16 core high school curriculum courses, according to Ranford and her father, George. They each said her freshman year English class -- which she passed and put her on track to earn a D.C. Public Schools diploma -- was not certified as a core course because the NCAA told them it was not rigorous enough and lacked the proper coding within the NCAA's database of qualified courses.

Ransford, who graduated last week, took an online correspondence course this spring to earn the credit and plans to enroll at Georgia later this month.

"Just because you're clear with D.C. doesn't mean you're clear with the NCAA," Ransford said.

In nearly three dozen interviews, athletes, parents, coaches, guidance counselors and school administrators identified four primary areas of concern that they said are hurting student-athletes in the D.C. public school system who aspire to play their sport in college: outdated graduation requirements; inadequate standardized-test preparation; a lack of understanding of NCAA requirements by guidance counselors; and loopholes in athletic eligibility standards that allow students to stay eligible for sports but ultimately come up short of NCAA standards.

"You get all this hoopla about a kid signing somewhere, but how many of them get there?" Dunbar athletic director and boys' basketball coach Johnnie Walker said. "Where are these kids when [high school] is over?"

There are plenty of success stories, including Dunbar football players Vernon and Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn, each of whom had a standout college career and are now in the NFL; Tia Bell, who graduated from H.D. Woodson in 2007 and made the ACC academic honor roll while playing basketball at N.C. State, where she will enter her senior year this fall; and the Dunbar girls' track team, under the direction of Coach Marvin Parker, which has had impressive success with placing its athletes on college rosters or on academic scholarships.

But not all the city's top public school athletes are so fortunate. According to the NCAA's National Letter of Intent office, which tracks all high school seniors and junior-college transfers who sign scholarship papers, 25 of 60 seniors who signed with Division I football, men's or women's basketball programs from 2004 to 2009 failed to meet NCAA requirements upon graduation.

In 2003, the NCAA raised its core-curriculum course requirement from 14 to 16 for students entering college in fall 2008, meaning students must pass four years each of math, science and English, and two apiece in history and a foreign language. It was not until 2007, though, that D.C. Public Schools raised its diploma requirements from three to four years apiece for math and science.

Since the start of the 2007-08 academic year, D.C. Public Schools graduation requirements exceed the NCAA's qualification standards. At a mandatory 24 credits, they are among the most stringent in the Washington area, surpassing Fairfax and Montgomery counties (22 credits each) and Prince George's (21).

Ransford, who enrolled at H.D. Woodson in the fall of 2006, said guidance counselor Carl Allen told her last September that the NCAA would not accept her freshman English class. She said Allen told her the school would petition the NCAA to accept it by showing the material covered met the criteria for ninth-grade level coursework. By the time she signed with Georgia, Andy Landers, the Georgia coach, told her she needed to find an alternative class that met NCAA standards. Ransford paid $124 to sign up for an independent studies course administered online by Brigham Young University.

Allen, who has worked in Woodson's guidance department for 10 years, said he oversees about 200 students. He declined to discuss Ransford's case.

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