Michael Taylor, a 6-foot-3 right linebacker for the Coolidge High School championship football team, plays hard and intensely on the field. For the past several weeks he has transferred that intensity to improving his borderline C average.
Taylor and hundreds of other high school athletes across the District have been studying their English books instead of their play books, attending after-school tutorial classes and spending more time on homework than in the gym so they can meet the C-average requirement that is expected to take effect in September.
Grades from the current semester will be used to determine a student's eligibility to play sports and participate in other extracurricular activities except student government in the fall.
The policy was published in the D.C. Register on April 4 and, barring any serious challenge within the 30-day comment period, the school board will vote for final adoption.
Players who will be seniors in the fall, such as Taylor, are exempted from the policy tentatively adopted by the board, but they are taking no chances. "Something might happen to change the rules," Taylor said.
Most of the city's 3,000 high school students who participate in marching bands and foreign language clubs would not be affected by the new requirement, however. But athletes would be seriously challenged because their grades and attendance tend to be below the average, according to a survey conducted by school officials last year. There are an estimated 1,200 athletes in the city's 13 high schools.
In an effort to help students meet the C-average requirement, school officials allocated about $100,000 to pay teachers to run tutorial classes in English, mathematics, science and social studies.
"It's been tough studying harder and longer," Taylor said, smiling. "But I'm going to be okay. I'm playing next year."
While most players in academic trouble have buckled down and improved their grades in recent weeks, several have quit sports out of frustration and fear that they could not make the grade, some coaches said.
Coaches said they generally favor the grade requirement, but some have complained that athletes were not prepared to meet it and some outstanding players will be lost.
"I'm going to lose two kids who were probably going to be All-Americans next year, because their grades are too low," said Robert Headen, who coaches football and basketball at Woodson High School in Northeast.
"At this point, coaches don't know how many players are going to be eligible to play next year," Headen said. "We don't know who is going to make the grade and who isn't."
Some coaches established study halls. At McKinley High School in Northeast, athletes have been required to attend study hall for years, but they have not been required to maintain a C average, said basketball coach Charles Perry.
"I had my reservations when I first heard that a C-average rule would go into effect next year," Perry said. "But, if students really want to do something, they'll rise to the occasion. If they really want to win, they'll do what's necessary, whether that is in sports or in academics."
He added, "Naturally, a lot of athletes have gotten upset, but most have cooled down and accepted the new rules. They realize that they have to be more responsible for themselves, and they realize that society is not going to produce any more illiterate sports millionaires."
About 40 percent of Prince George's County students involved in extracurricular activities were declared ineligible when the county schools instituted a C-average requirement last year. But county school officials did not create systemwide tutorial classes to help students.
"We don't want what happened in P.G. County to happen here," said one D.C. school official. "We thought we should back up our new policy with the necessary help some students need."
In Alexandria, public school officials introduced the C-average rule this year but identified students who were in academic trouble and offered them tutorial help so they could raise their grades, officials said.
Only 3.3 percent of the athletes failed to meet the requirement, officials said.
In the District, students participating in student government would be exempted from the rule because "it's their inalienable, democratic right in a free society to run for an elected position and to vote," said D.C. school board member Eugene Kinlow (At Large), chairman of the student services committee, which recommended the C-average rule.
Perry and other coaches agreed that the new rule would help athletes meet regulations adopted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association that require players to have a C average in high school and a combined score of 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test to qualify to receive scholarships and play in college.
"The pressure is on these kids," said Sam Taylor, coach of the football team at Coolidge in Northwest. "Some have quit; others didn't even come to winter weight training because they know it's going to be tough. But for those who stick with it, there's the chance to get an athletic scholarship to attend college. And most of these kids, that's the only way they'll get there.
"It's asking a lot of some kids to make a C just to play ball," he continued. "There are so many other things they could do. The temptations are great: There's money from drugs, there's their social life. I just wish that we had more incentives, things like individual trophies for members of championship teams," said Taylor.
Woodson's Headen said it is frustrating to see some players get "shoved off the team" because of poor grades. "For some athletes, D-plus is the best they can make. Their environment isn't conducive to academic achievement, and their only reason for coming to school is to play sports. It's their only outlet. Now, when a teacher has a problem with a kid who has bad grades and bad behavior, I won't be able to put the kid on the team and help him mature. Every kid deserves an outlet for his energy and talents."
Headen added, "I think it is very ironic that a kid doesn't have to have a C average to graduate; he can graduate with a D average, but he can't play sports with a D average."
Said school board President David Hall (Ward 1), "The C-average rule is part of the effort to raise standards throughout the school system. It will make athletes and other students buckle down and study harder."