While his teammates practiced on the track after school last week, 17-year-old Rod Scott worked out by himself on the streets of his Fort Washington neighborhood. Scott, a football and track star at Friendly High School, had failed geometry, a grade that banned him from the track team and threatened a promising athletic career and seven potential college scholarships.
Scott was one of more than 14,000 Prince George's County high school students declared ineligible for extracurricular activities last Tuesday because they failed to achieve a C average. The rule, the first of its kind to be enforced in the Washington area, reflects a national get-tough trend in education.
From California to Florida, states and local school districts, including Alexandria, have adopted or are considering stringent academic requirements for high school students who want to join clubs and athletic teams.
The requirements, which have decimated basketball teams, school bands and cheerleading squads, have evoked heated debate. And the debate was heightened locally this week with the news that more than 39 percent of Prince George's ninth- through 12th-graders will not be eligible for outside activities.
"I was shocked. I didn't think it would be that high," said Angelo Castelli, chairman of the county Board of Education and sponsor of the regulation. But, he added: "I am more adamant to stick to my guns than before. We've sent out a signal loud and clear . . . . Academics is first."
While Castelli's sentiments are frequently echoed, opponents argue that the requirements often hurt students more than they help them.
"If they're tightening the standards without providing any means to help the kids, I think it's a Neanderthal policy," said Nancy Kerweit, a research scientist in education at Johns Hopkins University. She argued that the rule could drive students to take easy courses, increase the dropout rate and transform schools into havens for the elite.
Unlike most of the students barred from outside activities, Scott got a chance to rescue his aspirations. Friday, he took and passed a test he had missed when he had the flu. Hours before a regional track meet, he was back on the team.
"I look forward to going into sports in college, and after college, maybe the pros," said Scott. "It's important to me."
But the policy carried immediate ramifications for other students and their parents.
"I was just so disappointed, angry, mostly at myself," said 16-year-old Mark Fowler, who was barred from the wrestling team at Frederick Douglass High when he brought home two Ds on his report card.
Fowler's father, whose name is also Mark, said he plans to go to the county school board next week to protest. "I think 2.0 C average is too high," said the father.
"My kids have always been in sports. I'm glad they're involved in school activities . . . anything other than drugs, beer or party time," said the elder Fowler.
In adopting the rule last spring, the Prince George's County school board jumped on the early wave of a national movement that had begun in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Rita Walters, a member of the Los Angeles city school board and a former teacher, proposed two years ago that students have at least a C average and no failing marks in order to join teams and clubs.
She got the idea for her proposal, which was unanimously approved, from a Los Angeles Times article about the "empty dreams" of inner-city youngsters.
"I was struck how such a large number had no sense of what was needed to succeed in life. They weren't prepared academically, and it caught up with them," she said.
Some opponents of minimum grade requirements contend that minority students will be hurt most. But black and other minority leaders in Los Angeles, Alexandria and elsewhere have led the push for such standards. "That line of thinking is to make the assumption -- and accept it -- that black or Hispanic kids cannot learn, are academically inferior," said Walters, who is black. "I do not accept that one bit."
There are other criticisms of the policy.
"The argument supposes you have to be 'average' to participate," said John Allwood, principal at Lake Braddock, an academically oriented high school in an affluent part of Fairfax County. He was among high school principals who in October rejected, 133-81, a proposal before the Virginia High School League to require a 2.0 average on a 4.0 scale for those involved in extracurricular activities.
"It's saying that anyone who's below this level can't have access to school programs, and I can't accept that. Just as we don't eliminate people by race or creed or sex, we shouldn't eliminate students this way."
But many educators are vociferous defenders of the policy. John A. Murphy, school superintendent in Prince George's, said he was disappointed with the high percentage of ineligible students, but he said the new policy "has gotten the message across to students."
"I think before, we were giving a mixed message to kids," he said. "You've got to be able to get a job, and you've got to have the mental discipline that comes with studying. Only a few of us are going to play professional basketball."
Kerweit, who studies education at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins, argues that if students are going to be held to a higher standard, the schools must offer extra help to those students.
"If the school is saying these are lazy kids, whose fault is it that they aren't motivated? Are they going to blame the families again?" Kerweit asked. "The school has a responsibility."
Brian J. Porter, spokesman for the Prince George's schools, said there are limitations on the schools. "We offer a program. We teach the best we can. But even the best we can will not succeed unless the student decides to buckle down."
Prince George's officials predict that the high numbers of ineligible students there will fall as students get accustomed to the stiffer standards, a phenomenon that occurred in Los Angeles.
At Hollywood High School, one of the schools most affected by the California rule, "Things are flying high," said principal Willard Hansen. When the rule was passed, the school could not field a junior varsity baseball team, and it lost 10 musicians from its band and three of its 10 cheerleaders.
The school still has no junior varsity baseball team, but the other squads are back to full strength. "It's been a blessing. The kids have shaped up to it," Hansen said.
Since the Los Angeles regulation was established, the percentage of ineligible high school students has dropped from more than 20 percent to just more than 16 percent, according to a school district spokesman.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., officials said a "disturbing" 20 percent of high school students failed to attain a 2.0 average after a new requirement took effect. School officials in Springfield, Mass., revised their rule that students get a C in every class after unexpectedly large numbers of students became ineligible.
Students in Texas, where livestock shows pose as much of a distraction as football, are facing a C-average requirement for the first time this winter. No figures are in yet, but a survey conducted in the fall predicted that 18 percent of the students would be ineligible, according to state education official James V. Clark.
In Alexandria, the School Board passed a resolution in November requiring high school and junior high athletes to maintain a C average. The rule, which goes into effect in the fall, does not apply to other activities.
At T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, a school with many excellent teams, coaches were vocal in their criticism. They warned that students might be more inclined to drop out or transfer to Fairfax County.
"The thinking was that we already had the toughest academic requirements in the state," said Don Riviere, athletic director at T.C. Williams. "And others were wondering, if there was a real problem across the board, why single out athletics?"
The decision by some jurisdictions, such as Alexandria, to make the rule apply only to sports has raised strong objections.
"There just isn't any justification to single out athletes," said Warren Brown, assistant executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, whose members oversee athletic and other competitive events.
"Athletes have better retention rates than nonathletes , even when they don't make good grades, and they have better attendance. We're highly opposed to a higher grade-point average for athletes. It's kind of a knee-jerk reaction, a dumb-jock stereotype," he said.
Other jurisdictions in the Washington area have watched the controversy with interest but have not seriously considered stronger requirements.
In the District, Vinna Freeman, director of health, physical education and athletics, believes a minimum grade requirement makes sense if the standard is more lenient for young students. District students need pass only four courses with Ds to be eligible.
"What we have now is too low, and the students have to be inspired to do better than maintain a D average," Freeman said. "They have to learn to be students first and remember that athletics is an extracurricular activity that has many other benefits."
According to a 20-year-old regulation in Montgomery County, students are ineligible for athletics if they have more than one failing grade per marking period. The state of Maryland has no specific eligibility requirements for athletes.
While school officials examine the merits of minimum requirements, the students in Prince George's whose lives are affected by the edict are assessing the effect.
"Basketball is my life. That's the only thing I really like," said 17-year-old Clarence Clark, whose Laurel High junior varsity basketball team was disbanded Tuesday after he and four other players failed to make the C average.
Clark, who said he received a 1.9 average, vowed to "put it together" and be back on the team next year.
"It's a good rule, but I knew a lot of people would get cut," he said. "My mom, she took it harder than I did. She came to all my games."
Clark's schoolmates give the new requirement mixed reviews.
"Everybody can't make it. They study a lot, but just can't get a 2.0," said William Spears, a junior basketball player with a 2.7 average.
Another Laurel senior, Anne Terrier, disagreed. "If you really want to make it," she said, "there's always a way."