Eligibility rules for students participating in competitive interscholastic activities at middle and high schools in the Amphitheater Public Schools district are undergoing a major overhaul.

The kinks in the new rules - adopted in August by the Amphi Governing Board - are being worked out this spring with a pilot program at the district's schools in anticipation of full enforcement during the 2003-2004 school year.

The district estimates that 30 percent of its 8,906 middle and high school students are participating in Arizona Interscholastic Association activities at any one time.

Under the new rules, students in activities under the AIA umbrella (see page 7) will have to maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0 or higher, have no grades of "F," have fewer than five absences (excused or unexcused) per semester and have no serious discipline infractions, according to Michael Bejarano, Amphi athletic director.

Serious discipline infractions include fighting, reckless driving, probation violations, cheating, extortion, alcohol/drug use and arson.

Additionally, AIA participants who are seniors have to have taken all sections of the AIMS test to qualify for their sport. Passing the AIMS becomes a graduation requirement in 2006, but district officials have not yet decided if passing it will become an additional eligibility requirement for AIA activities that year.

If a student competitor becomes ineligible under the new policy, that ineligibility lasts all year, except in the case of GPA, which will be reviewed every four and one-half weeks for reinstatement, Bejarano said. For instance, if the student misses more than five days of school or has a serious discipline infraction, no matter when those absences or infractions take place, he or she is ineligible for the rest of the year. Repetition of minor discipline infractions can result in a site principal revoking eligibility as well.

Prior to adoption of these rules, Amphi operated under the eligibility requirements set up by the State Board of Education's "No pass-No play" policy, according to Bejarano. That policy says students are eligible for AIA activities as long as they are passing all classes with a grade of "D" or above. In addition, under No pass-No play, students can become eligible within a week after their quarterly grade report if their failing grades come up to a "D" or more.

Last spring, the district did a GPA screening of all three high schools and found that the average GPA of students participating in competitive AIA activities was 2.89, said Bejarano, so he doesn't think students participating in competitive interscholastic activities will have problems with the higher grade requirements.

In fact, he anticipates the rule most difficult for parents and students to swallow will be the "less than five absences per semester" restriction.

"This isn't meant to be punitive, but we want kids in class," he said. "It is just a fact that students do better when they are in school. We believe athletics are a privilege, not a right. The fact is, with No Child Left Behind coming up, we have to be proactive. The bar has been raised. We have to teach the students now that to achieve the proficiency they have to have under No Child Left Behind rules, they have to be in class."

Bejarano said exceptions to the attendance policy would be made for "unavoidable, unforeseeable, serious" reasons such as hospitalizations, death in the family or serious illnesses.

At a Feb. 6 meeting of the Superintendent's Community Council, attended by principals of all Amphi schools and a parent representative from each site, the absences restriction concerned some parents.

"I don't understand the appeal process, how you will decide on an illness if it is serious," said Betty Vinall from Cross Middle School. "What are the parameters - every time my kid has a 102-degree fever, do I have to go to the doctor every time to prove he's sick? How is it not just my word against yours?"

Bejarano said he wasn't "going to play the game of you calling and telling me your child is sick when he isn't."

"I have to trust you, as parents, to tell me the truth," he said, "If you don't, you sleep with that, not me," he said.

"What we're trying to get away from are the families who take a vacation in the middle of a semester and take the kid out of school for a week," Bejarano said at an interview before the council meeting. "If you look at the calendar, we have Labor Day in the fall - say you take an extra day there to make it a four-day holiday, you immediately lose a day of school. Then Veteran's Day comes and you do it again, and at Thanksgiving you take a couple extra days and at the beginning of the fall break, you take off the Friday before it starts. Well, there you have five days gone and you're out of sports for the rest of the year."

Superintendent Vicki Balentine said that while the new rules are not being driven by financial concerns, "it is fact that when students are out of school, we lose funding."

"As wonderful as some of this stuff is (that students miss school for), it takes them out of school and we lose the money," she said. "We generally don't receive state funding unless a child is present five periods of the day at the high school level … and our biggest problem is single-period absences."

Balentine made it clear that school-sponsored functions will not count against a student's AIA eligibility. For instance, if the band takes a five-day trip to California to compete, those students' absences will be exempted. Also, students at Amphitheater High School involved in Future Farmers of America will be exempted to go to the Pima County Fair to compete because FFA is a school-sponsored function.

However, students in 4-H, also an agricultural program, would not be exempted because 4-H is not school-sponsored.

This discrepancy caused problems for Maureen Peters, a Coronado parent, because a number of Coronado students are involved in 4-H.

"Where do my rights as a parent come in?" she asked. "Where I, as a parent, can let my child go to the fair when they've been working all year, and when it is a great learning experience? What about the kids who get great grades and just need to miss school for the fair - they can't play a sport?"

Balentine said concerns such as Peters' were why the district was introducing the new rules this year so everyone will be fully cognizant of the change.

"Let's say that you believe that the 4-H program is so critical for your child that you take the child out of school," Balentine said. "Knowing what the (eligibility) requirements are, you've chosen to exercise that right. Your rights aren't being taken away, but you are making a choice."

The district's three high schools and five middle schools have begun instituting a computer program to track all students in AIA activities, monitoring their grades, discipline violations and attendance record. Using data from that system, they will be sending out letters this quarter to athletes and their parents who - if the new rules were currently in place - would be ineligible for the remainder of the year.

The letter reads, in part, "The Amphitheater District has raised eligibility standards for participating in competitive interscholastic activities. This policy goes into effect next school year … based on your child's recent grade report, he/she would NOT be eligible based upon the following…" The letter then delineates areas where the student has failed to meet eligibility requirements and asks parents to help their child understand the new rules.

"Basically it is a 'This is a test,' letter," said Coronado K-8 School Vice Principal Dave Berry, who sent out 17 letters this month. "It explains that, if the new rules were in place already, this student couldn't play." Coronado has 130 students involved in AIA activities, and is the only school thus far to have been able to utilize the computer program completely.

"Coronado is ahead of the game," said Bejarano. "The other schools are still working out the glitches, but they should be up and running within a couple of weeks."

Bejarano said the pilot program is very important because "we don't want anyone surprised next fall" when the new requirements become permanent policy.

"We told our schools in September they needed to get on line with the (computer program) pilot so we could work out all the glitches early," Bejarano said. "We're already learning that communication is going to be important because at each school, someone different is handling the program."

For instance, at most schools, a vice principal handles discipline referrals, while the registrar or attendance clerk handles the attendance and counselors handle grade reporting.

"All these levels have to be talking to each other so some student isn't surprised with an ineligibility notice without fair warning," Bejarano said. "Let's say you have an athlete who only runs track, but misses five days of school in the fall. He needs to know in the fall that he lost his eligibility for spring right then."

Bejarano said he is going to take information gleaned from the schools during the pilot over the next few months and come up with a presentation for the governing board in April or May. That presentation will discuss where he sees the program might need some adjusting or problems principals have noticed in operating the pilot.

Already Bejarano sees a potential difficulty with being able to apply the rules in an equitable manner.

"Even though attendance counts by semester, you lose your eligibility for the whole year," he said. "So if a fall athlete misses five days of school, he's out for the rest of the year (or about six months), but if a spring athlete misses five days in, say, March, he's only out for a couple of months. Or if a kid messes up and gets in a fight in the beginning of the year, he's out, but if another one doesn't do that until near the end of school, he's only out for a few weeks. The infractions are the same, but the consequences are not. Maybe we need to come up with a certain number of days for consequences."

Balentine explained, however, that students who would become ineligible for AIA activities through a discipline infraction would most likely be suspended, and therefore, "if something happens in April, you may be suspended for 150 days, and still be out in the fall sports … it will depend on each situation."

Another difficulty in the discipline area is perception, Bejarano said. One principal might see a certain infraction as a serious discipline infraction and another principal might see it as only a minor infraction.

"I think we might need to have (Amphi District Counsel) Todd (Jaeger) come up with qualifiers so the assistant principals have a very limited interpretation of the rules - they can't be so broad maybe," the athletic director said.

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