Gonzaga's Terrance Williams shoots a free throw during a WCAC game against DeMatha in January. Coaches estimate that between 25 and 50 percent of the conference's varsity basketball players have reclassified before high school. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

When Melanie Williams was first approached about the possibility of having her son repeat a grade in middle school to improve his chances of earning a college basketball scholarship, she opposed the idea. Her son, Terrance Williams, was doing well in school and on the court, and having him repeat a grade seemed unnecessary. She didn’t want her son to be teased for going through the same grade a second time or have trouble adjusting to a new set of peers.

But after more than a year of studying the benefits of reclassifying, Williams changed her mind. Five years later, Williams maintains that reclassifying Terrance and having him repeat the seventh grade was the right move for her son’s academic and athletic future. Terrance went on to become one of the top eighth-grade basketball recruits in the D.C. area, and he is now a four-star college prospect at Gonzaga College High with scholarship offers from elite academic institutions such as Stanford, Notre Dame, Virginia and Georgetown.

“It just made him a mature student, a mature player,” Williams said. “I saw the effects almost immediately, not only academically but in basketball as well.”

Williams’s decision did not make her son an anomaly within the elite boys’ basketball community but rather kept him among the norm. Reclassing, as the practice is more commonly known, has been around for at least two decades and has included athletes in sports from hockey to baseball to lacrosse. But it has become increasingly common in recent years among the highest levels of boys’ basketball, including kids across all demographic and financial backgrounds and starting as early as elementary school.

While those in hoops circles argue that the practice almost always benefits the players, educators have expressed skepticism, and there remains a stigma around it outside of the basketball community. Several parents of players who have reclassed declined to comment for this story, citing a fear that they would be viewed negatively for not having their child participate with his age group.

“We’re just in an odd place right now,” said Jay Bilas, a college basketball commentator for ESPN. “Just let each kid, each parent, do what you want to do. That’s fine. Do what is best for your kid. But, man, there is no way that parents are spending as much time sort of facilitating their kids’ academic success as their athletic success.”

Reclassing has become prominent in the hypercompetitive D.C.-area basketball scene, with some estimating that half of all Division I-bound men’s basketball players reclassed in middle school or younger. Of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference’s eight first-team players this past season, five — all of whom are projected to play for major college basketball programs — have reclassed, as have several top players in two other prominent private school leagues: the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference and Interstate Athletic Conference.

It has become so common, some say, that many families feel pressure to reclass their children as a means of keeping up with their peers.

“It is what it is because everybody else is doing it,” said Joe Sego, longtime middle school boys’ basketball coach at St. Jerome Catholic Academy in Hyattsville. He added that he has fielded more calls from parents interested in reclassing this year than ever before. “You don’t even hear, ‘Oh, your kid is good and all, but he’s 15 [playing on a team of 14-year-olds].’ You just don’t hear that because half of his team is 15.’ ”

‘A pathway to college’

When parents make the decision to reclass their child, it isn’t as simple as having him retake the same grade at the same elementary or middle school. Instead, parents often transfer their children to a private school, which can be costly, or home-school them for a year.

“I think if the goal is to get a [college] education and have it paid for, then by whatever means,” said Ricky Goings, a coach who founded the nonprofit Everyone Deserves a Shot, a D.C.-area program that helps local basketball players find college scholarship opportunities. “You are talking about $100,000 [college] scholarships. If that means an extra year in high school, middle school, why not?”

One factor in the decision can be a player’s positioning within the shoe company-sponsored AAU circuit, which provides players with exposure to college coaches on travel teams that are based on grade level. If an aspiring point guard, for example, is in a grade level with talented players at the same position — including ones who may have dropped down a grade after reclassing themselves — his family might make the decision that his college scholarship chances are better by moving down a year.

Many in the basketball community warn that not all kids who reclass wind up making it to Division I. It is often helpful, they say, but sometimes players see little or no improvement in their recruitment after reclassing.

However, some see it as a pivotal step in a player’s preparation for private high school basketball and, eventually, college. For Stefan Marcelle, a ninth-grader at Georgetown Prep, reclassing in eighth grade from James Madison Middle in Prince George’s County to Woods Academy in Bethesda gave him a chance to adjust to a private school academic curriculum before entering high school. Marcelle, cousin of former NBA player Roy Hibbert, said he doesn’t think he would have been ready academically without reclassing.

“It’s a pathway to college,” Marcelle said.

‘It has paid off’

While there are several success stories among players who have reclassed, critics of the trend warn that repeating a grade can often harm children socially or academically. Jim Barnes, the vice chair of the Association for Middle Level Education executive board and the principal of Chestnut Ridge Middle in Sewell, N.J., said that reclassing a student is “really a problem” and “isn’t healthy.”

“It is becoming not about schooling,” Barnes said. “Where are our priorities? Are our priorities with the academics or the athletics? That is the concern I have, being in education.”

Barnes said research has shown that holding a student back in first or second grade can be helpful but that once kids reach the fourth grade it is better to keep them moving along with their same class.

“I think once you start focusing on that and it’s becoming an athletic type of situation, students would lose focus on the whole academic side of why they are in school,” Barnes said. “To me, we are in school to learn and progress.”

Many parents of players who reclassed said the additional year of schooling strengthened their children academically, while some acknowledged there was an adjustment period socially. Still, because the trend is associated with being considered a high-level athlete, there often isn’t the same stigma that might ordinarily come with repeating a grade.

“It’s almost like a badge of honor now,” said James Parker Jr., president of the Premier Youth Basketball League. “Like, ‘I’m good at basketball and I’m focused on the game, so I’m going to reclass.’ ”

It’s more likely to draw the ire of opposing players or parents who have not made the decision to reclass and take issue with the age gap.

“I think when all of us were younger, if you got held back, there was usually nothing positive about being held back. But when it is the parents’ decision to hold the kid back and it’s done for athletics, that is where it causes some of the jealousy,” Bilas said. “Like, ‘Wait a minute now, my 16-year-old is playing against this 18-year-old kid, and he reclassed, and they are playing in the same grade. What the hell?’ ”

By and large, however, those issues don’t come up on the recruiting trail. Former longtime college basketball coach Todd Bozeman, who is originally from the D.C. area, said that college coaches don’t care whether a player has reclassed in middle school and it “doesn’t even come up” in conversations unless it’s an unusual case.

“I still think you have every right to do what you see fit for your child,” Bozeman said.

Many high school coaches are similarly supportive. Paul VI Coach Glenn Farello, who works in admissions at the school, said he has no issue with a player who has reclassed as long as the family made the decision for the right reasons.

“I mean, no question an extra year of development does not hinder the process. It definitely helps,” Farello said. “It is to give their sons and daughters a little bit more of an advantage when we are talking about the endgame, and endgame meaning being college student-athletes."

For Melanie Williams, what ultimately changed her mind about reclassing son Terrance, who will be a senior next season, was seeing that he had room to improve on an admissions test he took for a local private middle school. She said she recognized that the extra year would benefit him academically while setting him up for further success on the court.

“It has paid off,” Melanie said. “As I always tell in my conversation with college coaches and faculty when we talk to them, as a black family, this is a decision that can have an impact on [Terrance’s] kids’ kids. Basketball on the surface can seem like an obvious thing, but for me, it was such a bigger decision that sets our family up and his family up for generational impact."

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