East Baton Rouge teachers to start school year with an assembly — for the entire district _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Warren Drake

As expected, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday voted unanimously to lower the minimum grade-point average students need to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities from 2.0 to 1.5.

The change immediately will allow hundreds of previously excluded teenagers the chance to take part in an array of out-of-class activities.

The strong show of support was evident two weeks ago when the board first debated the idea. The change leaves Caddo and Jefferson parishes as the only public school districts in Louisiana that still have minimum GPA requirements above a 1.5.

Board member Tarvald Smith was absent Thursday.

Thursday’s vote was a victory for new Superintendent Warren Drake, who pushed for the change, but it prompted public criticism that the move amounts to lowering standards.

Drake has argued repeatedly that lowering the minimum GPA will do more good than maintaining it at 2.0, providing more students the chance to take part in and take advantage of the well-documented benefits of extracurricular activities.

Drake, though, was mostly quiet Thursday. Board member Connie Bernard was the only person who spoke in defense of the change.

Bernard noted that East Baton Rouge has stood alone locally in requiring a 2.0 minimum GPA and that expanding the chances to participate in extracurricular activities is “the right thing to do for kids.”

“I am glad that we can have students with adult mentors in the afternoon and evenings,” Bernard said.

Board Vice President Barbara Freiberg asked, and Drake agreed, to return to the board in September with a report on the students with GPAs between 1.5. to 2.0 and what high schools are doing to afford them tutoring and help. Drake already has pledged to monitor these students closely.

After the meeting, Freiberg said she’d planned to ask for an end-of-the-year report but stepped up her timetable, in part based on concerns raised to her by parents connected to the group Stand for Children.

Alex Deiro, a spokeswoman for Stand for Children, said 16 parents sent a series of emailed letters to School Board members raising concerns about the change. A handful of parents from the group were present Thursday to speak but opted not to because the item produced minimal debate.

Thursday’s vote ends an experiment East Baton Rouge Parish began in 2005 in hopes of improving overall student achievement. The overwhelming majority of high schools in the state, however, have stuck with the 1.5 minimum GPA, in keeping with rules set by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.

Caddo and Jefferson parishes, the only public school districts in the state that still require a 2.0 minimum GPA, nevertheless are looser in their standard than East Baton Rouge has been.

In Caddo, for instance, schools can waive the 2.0 rule for up to 2 percent of the students at any given school. Jefferson allows some students who fall below 2.0 to keep playing for up to two marking periods while they try to bring up their grades.

East Baton Rouge’s lowering of the minimum GPA cuts against the prevailing academic trend to raise minimum requirements. College entrance requirements have climbed steadily in Louisiana.

To play college athletics, the NCAA requires a 2.0 GPA, but starting in fall 2016, incoming freshmen will need a 2.3 minimum GPA to play college athletics at Division I schools. Some states already require 2.0 GPAs or higher. Some states, however, have fewer requirements than Louisiana.

On Thursday, the School Board also approved a memorandum of understanding with the Capital Area Human Services District to offer help with child mental health issues at 19 schools. Board member Jill Dyason abstained .

The seemingly routine agreement sparked controversy at the Aug. 6 board meeting. Representatives of groups that also offer mental health services, and parents who use those services, packed that meeting to raise concerns that they were being excluded. Parents also detailed for board members horror stories of troubled children who were in danger of losing valued therapy.

Superintendent Drake had launched a review of dozens of providers of such services but had moved forward with approving CAHSD because the school system has used that agency for a quarter-century. The review, Drake said, was prompted by complaints by principals that counselors and therapists were making unannounced visits and were using up a lot of class time.

On Thursday, Drake said he resolved the issue. He said he’s giving the providers until Sept. 8 to sign paperwork that they will agree to follow school rules set by the principal about when and under what conditions they can see kids during school hours. In the meantime, those providers can continue seeing kids uninterrupted.