PORT ALLEN — Port Allen High wide receiver Sean Garner started his junior year in August with a 1.7 GPA and an apathetic outlook about college.
But by the time football season ended in December, the 17-year-old had bragging rights to a 3.2 GPA and now is having trouble deciding what to major in when he goes to college.
He credits much of his academic turnaround to one man: coach Nick Mitchell, who took over as head coach of the Port Allen High Pelicans last year.
“Coach gave me the motivation to pick my grades up,” Garner said. “He made me study extra harder. And it feels great. He basically told me that school is really important, too.”
Garner isn’t the only one singing coach Mitchell’s praises.
With nearly a third of the school’s football team posting similar academic achievements this year, Mitchell has parents and officials with the West Baton Rouge Parish school system cheering on the team for its successes off the field this year.
“His focus on academics is one of the things we talked about when we hired him,” said James Jackson, principal of Port Allen High. “Our first mission is to educate our kids.”
Nikisha Brown, whose son, Brenton, plays on the defensive line for the Pelicans, said she’s seen a tremendous change since Mitchell became coach.
“I like the idea of academics first,” Brown said. “He’s really training them to be student-athletes. That’s a term I really like.”
When Mitchell adopted the program after his February 2015 resignation as football coach at Southern Lab, 11 of his approximately 50 players at Port Allen High had GPAs of 1.5 or below.
That grim reality forced Mitchell to give several of the team’s stellar players their walking papers. The school district and Louisiana High School Athletic Association mandates students have a minimum 1.5 GPA to be eligible for high school sports.
More than 30 of the players had grade-point averages on the margins, hovering in the 1.5 to 2.5 range, he added.
“I wasn’t pleased about what I saw because of the importance of academics in the student-athlete’s life,” Mitchell said. “I wanted every young man to contribute success to the classroom as well. I felt we needed to push them to succeed. Not just keep kids on the fence of eligibility, but have them excel further.”
Mitchell asked that his players work toward GPAs of at least 3.0 or higher — something only five had done when Mitchell took over.
“We just said, ‘Let’s get it done,’ ” Garner said. “We just decided to pay more attention. Work harder and just strive.”
There was some kickback though.
“Some of the parents did ask, ‘Why does my kid have to have a 3.0 if LHSAA says they only need a 1.5 GPA?’ ” Jackson recounted. “But after a little time, everybody was on board.”
Jackson said those on board included Port Allen High’s teachers and supporting staff who volunteered their time to tutor student-athletes who were struggling to make the grades.
The school also used its block-style scheduling to place student-athletes in a last period study hall-type class each day where those struggling academically could either return to class and receive additional instruction on a subject, or be tutored by one of their more academically astute fellow players before practice that afternoon.
Mitchell held them accountable throughout football season by segregating the team into groups based on their GPAs every time progress reports were released. He said it made the athletes take ownership of their actions without sugarcoating what he expected of them.
“I had some young men, who weren’t everyday leaders on the team, step up and find their voice,” Mitchell said. “Their voice might not have been the Friday night voice on the field, but it was the Sunday through Thursday voice that reached back to their teammates to help the ones that were struggling meet the standard I set for them.”
Mitchell singled out sophomore offensive lineman Romello DeCuir as one such leader.
DeCuir had a 3.0 GPA when Mitchell came aboard. The 15-year-old said Mitchell’s new academic standards gave him a new purpose on the team.
“It makes me feel like: If I can accomplish this with them, we can accomplish anything,” DeCuir said. “We really wanted to make him proud of us.”
DeCuir’s mother, India DeCuir, says it was a little off-putting at first when her son started calling her at work, asking for permission to let some of his teammates come over after school so Romello could help them with their homework.
But saying “yes” quickly became easier when she started seeing firsthand the morale boost it gave her son and his fellow teammates.
“(Romello) would get mad at the games and say, ‘We work too hard at school, staying up late to study, to come out here and not win,’ ” she recalled. “He really took a leadership role as if he was a senior.”
The Pelicans didn’t have the best season for Mitchell’s first year with the program. The team finished in December with a 4-7 record.
But off the field, 15 of his players met his 3.0 goal. And a majority of the team now has GPAs of 2.5 to 2.75.
“Sports is one of those things that builds character and academic achieving,” schools Superintendent Wesley Watts said. “We’re using every avenue we can to help students get better. And we knew coach Mitchell was about that too before he came.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.