Warren Drake named next East Baton Rouge Parish schools superintendent _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Warren Drake speaks before the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board after they unanimously voted the former Zachary Superintendent to the position of superintendent within the parish school system, Thursday, Apr. 2, 2015, at their offices on S. Foster Drive.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members voted unanimously Thursday to recommend lowering the minimum grade-point average needed to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities from 2.0 to 1.5.

Several board members previously opposed the idea, but the strong 9-0 vote means the board is almost certain to give this policy change final approval when it meets again Aug. 20.

“This is not about lowering standards; it’s about saving lives and mentoring students,” said Superintendent Warren Drake, who has pushed hard for the change.

The move would return the school system to the threshold that the vast majority of Louisiana public schools set for students when it comes to extracurricular activities and sports. It also would short-circuit a decade-long experiment with requiring a higher minimum GPA in hopes of sparking students to work harder on their studies.

The debate Thursday was impassioned with strong advocates on both sides.

Drake described several research students showing how students who participate in extracurricular activities are more likely to get better grades and stay in school. But he also talked about his experience as an educator and a coach.

“When you have kids who are participating in extracurricular activities, they are more likely to take pride in their schools, they are more likely to have parental involvement, they are more likely to excel in their organizations,” he said.

Eric Brown, who was an athletic coach at Istrouma High School, said he feels he could have helped mentor more kids if he had been able to let them on the team with a GPA lower than 2.0.

“I believe in a 2.0. I believe you should keep the bar high,” he said. “But the 1.5 will save people’s lives.”

Board member Jill Dyason expressed the most misgivings. She was on the board that in 2005 approved raising the minimum GPA for extracurricular activities from 1.5 to 2.0.

“We really felt that if we were raising expectation, children would rise to those standards,” Dyason said.

Since news broke earlier this week of the proposed change, Dyason said, the phone calls she’s received were overwhelmingly against the idea. At the same time, she said she wants to support the judgment of Drake, who took over as superintendent June 1.

She suggested Drake could set it up so that students with GPAs between 1.5 and 2.0 could participate in extracurricular activities on a probationary basis but would have to raise their GPA over time. She said she would like Drake to handle it via internal procedures rather than tying his hands with a board policy.

When East Baton Rouge moved to a minimum 2.0 GPA in 2005, more than 2,200 middle and high school students were in danger of losing eligibility if they didn’t raise their grades, or about one out of every 10 students. It’s unclear whether the change prompted those student improve their grades to participate in extracurricular activities.

Board member Tarvald Smith also voted in 2005 for setting a 2.0 minimum GPA. But, he said it didn’t work out like he thought it would.

“I think there was a sense that the state would follow,” Smith said. “They didn’t.”

Drake noted that only a few school districts have joined East Baton Rouge, noting that Caddo and Jefferson are among those.

“The top 10 school districts in the state all have 1.5 for their GPA,” he said.

The Louisiana High School Athletic Association since 2012 has required that students maintain at least a C average to remain eligible for sports but allows school districts to define what a C is. Drake is proposing that in East Baton Rouge Parish a C would range from 1.5 to a 2.4 GPA for extracurricular activities.

LHSAA also requires students earn a minimum number of course credits to maintain eligibility; the number varies depending on whether schools use a traditional or a block schedule.

Other states have set a higher bar than Louisiana.

To play college athletics, the NCAA currently requires a 2.0 GPA, but it is shifting to requiring that incoming college freshman will need a 2.3 minimum GPA to play college athletics.

Board members Evelyn Ware-Jackson and Kenyetta Nelson-Smith said they were at first opposed.

“When Mr. Drake first brought this to me, I thought he was crazy,” Ware-Jackson said.

She said Drake changed her mind but that she wants students to have to have mandatory tutoring.

Nelson-Smith said she changed her mind only after lengthy dinner table debates with her family members.

Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers and a former track coach, said he’s gone back and forth on the issue over the years.

He said two longtime coaches persuaded him it was a good idea to shift back to a 1.5 minimum GPA. One coach offered this reason to him: “You would have 150 kids on this campus under adult supervision who aren’t now, and their mama would know where they are.”