The Omaha Public Schools adopted one of the toughest academic eligibility policies in the state Monday, ushering in a new era for students who participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.
The OPS board voted 8-0 to require students maintain a 2.0 minimum grade-point average and not fail any classes to participate in extracurricular activities.
Currently students can flunk three classes and receive D's in the rest, and still participate in extracurricular activities. The tougher rules will be phased in over three years. A 2.0 GPA translates to a “C” average.
The rules apply to high school students enrolled in any Nebraska School Activities Association-sanctioned activity, including sports, certain music groups, debate, journalism, plays and speech.
The district isn't changing standards for middle school students. They are already required to pass all classes to participate in after-school activities. They can however get more D's than high school students will be allowed under the new policy.
Current high schoolers will be grandfathered in. The freshman class of 2018 -- today's eighth graders -- will be the first to fall under the new rules.
The board approval caps off months of debate.
Now-board president Justin Wayne first proposed the 2.0 minimum in March, saying OPS needed to demand more of its student-athletes.
There was some push-back, including concerns that stricter standards would drive kids to suburban schools, most of which have the laxer state standard. Also, people worry the rules will discourage already at-risk students.
Although only about 16 percent of OPS student-athletes maintained less than a 2.0 in 2011-12, higher numbers of poor and African-American athletes fell below that threshold.
Still, board members agreed Monday night that it was time to raise expectations, even if it meant breaking out from the pack of schools that follow eligibility guidelines set by the state activities association.
“It's a good policy,” board member Matt Scanlan said. “We're holding student-athletes to a higher standard than the state of Nebraska.”
Like most Nebraska districts, OPS has followed the state activities association's standards, which require students to pass at least four classes.
With the new policy, OPS is joining other urban districts across the country and states like Florida and California.
The OPS policy contains exemptions, including one for special education students and a one-time waiver for extenuating circumstances -- such as a death in the family that causes a GPA to drop.
To help students maintain a 2.0, schools will continue to provide weekly, two-hour tutoring sessions after school. Academic coaches will monitor grades.
The district is picking up the estimated $250,000 cost of tutoring next year. Program costs have been covered by a Sherwood Foundation grant.
The policy will be phased in gradually:
Next school year, students will only be able to fail one class and still participate.
By 2015-16, a flunked class will disqualify a student.
By 2016-17, the 2.0 requirement and no pass-no play requirement will be implemented fully.
Once the 2.0 requirement kicks in 2016, eligibility will be determined by the GPA earned the previous grading quarter, or cumulative GPA if it is higher.
Once a student is deemed ineligible, he or she won't be able to play until the next grading period -- and only if he or she brings grades up to the minimum or demonstrates a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher.
Schools will take responsibility for informing parents and students about eligibility policies and coaching sessions. The district will begin spreading the word through avenues like school newsletters, physical forms and meetings with coaches, guidance counselors, athletic directors and teachers.
Scanlan said communication will be key moving forward. Parents and students need to understand the policy and its staggered implementation. The board, he said, needs to be open to feedback and suggestions as requirements are phased in.