Some Took Exception to an Exemption

Woodson's Stover Was Granted Eligibility, Sparking Controversy

H.D. Woodson linebacker Josh Stover, right, puts pressure on Coolidge's quarterback in a playoff game.
H.D. Woodson linebacker Josh Stover, right, puts pressure on Coolidge's quarterback in a playoff game. (By Joe Elbert -- The Washington Post)
By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Here is the face of controversy. It is the face that made him a lightning rod of criticism last month, when critics said D.C. Public Schools regressed in athletic compliance by granting students a fifth year to complete four seasons of eligibility.

Josh Stover was stunned at such pointed words. The H.D. Woodson senior simply wanted to show Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that he was a victim of a broken system and didn't want to miss a world of opportunities, including suiting up at linebacker in today's Turkey Bowl against Dunbar.

Stover met with Rhee in September. He asked for an exemption so he could play this season, but not for Rhee to change the school system's standards of athletic eligibility. Rhee since has said she plans to change the rules again to conform to standards prescribed by the National Federation of State High School Associations, limiting students to four consecutive seasons upon entering the ninth grade.

But Stover wanted Rhee to understand he had a special case.

"I was knucklehead kid," Stover said. "Growing up in Southeast, I was getting into a lot of trouble. But now I've cut a lot of people out of my life. I've got my grades up. I want to go to college."

Then he motioned to the Woodson practice field, with his teammates and coaches, and said, "This is my life now."

In November 2003, Stover, then a ninth-grader, was removed from Johnson Junior High in Southeast for behavioral problems and placed at Choice Academy, a public alternative school, to finish the school year.

When it came time for Stover to enroll in special education classes at Ballou for 10th grade in 2004-05, the system's computerized grading database did not show his grades from Choice, Stover and others familiar with his case said. In the school system's eyes, Stover had not completed ninth grade.

Stover said he and his mother, Sandra, petitioned the school system, to no avail. Repeating ninth grade actually might have helped him. He said his grade-point average at the time was 1.57.

Stover said he tried to enroll at Woodson in the middle of the school year, but because it was not his neighborhood school, he said he was told he had to wait until the 2005-06 year.

Meantime, Stover knew he needed a strong, dependable male influence. His father was in jail, and Stover had an offer to move in with his cousin, John Nabinett, a D.C. police officer who was also an assistant at Woodson.

"He made a decision to get out of that environment," Nabinett said, "and I was happy to take him in."

Stover's grades dramatically improved over the next two years at Woodson. He began this school year with a 3.2 GPA. Last spring, he volunteered to help clean up Woodson's library after it was vandalized. The bottom line, however, was that last year was his fourth since starting ninth grade at Johnson.

Stover had two football scholarship offers in writing from Akron and Ohio, said Bob Headen, Woodson's former longtime coach who still remains close to the program. Headen said he began seeking ways to get Stover eligible to play this fall.

"We're talking about working with kids and making changes, and [Stover] was successful with it," Headen said. "The problem was, if he didn't play this season, do you think those schools would have accepted him? I don't think so."

Allen Chin, executive director of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, told Stover and Woodson Coach Greg Fuller last summer that Stover would have to appeal to Rhee's office for an exemption. DCIAA rules would not permit Stover to play, and he began the 2007-08 school year in a Woodson classroom, but not on the sideline.

"He handled it real well," Woodson senior Tavon Wilson said. "Yeah, we needed him on the field, but we really needed his leadership, and he was there for us."

Headen, meantime, spoke to members of the D.C. Council, who encouraged him to contact Rhee. Stover e-mailed her as well. After a few weeks of corresponding, Headen and Stover saw Rhee when Woodson played at Coolidge on Sept. 21.

"The system failed you," Rhee told Stover. "There's no reason you shouldn't play."

Two weeks later, the rule was altered to allow Stover to do so. His name wasn't made public, but it was known that Woodson petitioned Rhee. Coaches and other athletic officials inside and outside the District criticized the move, especially in light of the NCAA changing its initial eligibility requirements to eliminate incoming students from being able to take core curriculum courses in a fifth year of high school.

"Not a lot of people know my story," Stover said, "and that bothered me."

Rhee acknowledged in an e-mail that Stover might have been one of many who took ninth grade at a middle or junior high school "that created a dynamic that would have a negative impact on potentially many students." That, she said, prompted her to make the rule change.

"Out of all the controversy," Stover said, "this is the perfect ending for me -- playing in the Turkey Bowl."

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