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

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; D01

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that they said are hurting student-athletes in the D.C. public school system who aspire to play their sport in college: outdated graduation requirements; inadequate standardized-test preparation; a lack of understanding of NCAA requirements by guidance counselors; and loopholes in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.

H.D. Woodson's 2008 and 2009 graduating classes featured four players -- Patrice Johnson in 2008, and Bernisha Pinkett, Jeniece Johnson and Carleeda Green in 2009 -- who signed letters-of-intent, but were academically ineligible or deferred their enrollments to satisfy school admission requirements.

In the spring of her senior year, Patrice Johnson signed to play basketball at Wake Forest, which told her she only had 15 1/2 core-courses fulfilled. Her mother, Janice, said she successfully petitioned Wake Forest to accept her daughter's business law class as a core course, though Patrice still needed to use the fall 2008 semester to improve her SAT score to meet Wake Forest admission standards. She enrolled during the second semester of the 2008-09 school year.

"The folks at Woodson had no idea about core courses," Janice Johnson said. "I had to teach the guidance counselors about it."

H.D. Woodson girls' basketball Coach Frank Oliver declined to comment for this story.

Another hurdle for D.C. public school athletes is standardized test scores, which have been a focus of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Mean SAT scores for public school students in the District lag national scores, and those of neighboring Maryland and Virginia, according to data provided by the College Board.

Anacostia's Travon Smith finished his varsity basketball career in 2009 as the leading scorer in school history and was named his class valedictorian. Yet few four-year colleges pursued him for basketball because his SAT score was too low.

"I just couldn't score enough on that," said Smith, who completed his freshman year at SUNY Delhi, a two-year school in Upstate New York. "I don't really like tests like that."

Maurice Butler, who is completing his 30th year as a teacher, administrator and coach at Theodore Roosevelt, said Smith's story is not unique. Butler said there is a systemic aversion to standardized test-taking among District public school students, adding many athletes tend to wait until the last possible date to take the exam.

"These kids have been taking [standardized] tests since the third grade," Butler said. "A lot of them either haven't done well or feel they won't do well. If you continually don't do well, you think, 'Why am I going to sit down and do this for four hours?' "

Staff cutbacks to the guidance system have added to the problem, school administrators said.

Wilson, the largest public high school in the District, has five counselors for nearly 1,500 students. Theodore Roosevelt had its guidance department cut from four to two this academic year for a 753-member student body.

"The counselor is responsible for guidance," Butler said. "If a kid is a scientist who's taking all [Advanced Placement] courses, or if a kid is an athlete who wants to play in college, it really doesn't matter. They should know what to do."

Athletes seeking to navigate the NCAA's eligibility requirements and match them with those of DCPS need their help.

Upon entering school, ninth graders are automatically eligible to play sports. To stay eligible, students do not need to adhere to the cumulative 2.0 grade-point average standard set by most school districts. For fall sports, either a 2.0 during the fourth and final advisory period for the previous school year, or a 2.0 for the entire previous school year, is required. For winter season, eligibility is determined by the second advisory period grades, and the spring season hinges upon the third advisory.

Because of this system, many athletes manage to maintain their eligibility even though they may not be meeting NCAA standards.

Derrell Person, who played football at Coolidge, managed to stay eligible each football season by achieving the 2.0 GPA during the fourth advisory of the previous year. "Once I got that [2.0], I fell off," he said. "After the season's over, I'd stop. I'd just not go to class. . . . I spent four years in high school, but it wasn't until my senior year that I met with a guidance counselor."

Prior to his senior season, he began receiving recruiting interest, and would eventually sign with New Mexico.

To qualify, however, he said he went to former teachers, seeking to do extra work for past courses in an attempt to raise his grades under a D.C. Public Schools provision called "high school credit recovery." He still did not meet NCAA eligibility standards and now is at Lackawanna (Pa.) Junior College.

"It's sad because these kids have a lot of opportunities, but can't take advantage of it," Ballou assistant football coach Todd Amis said. "It ends up hurting the schools in the long run because [colleges] won't recruit there anymore."

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