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Boston English drops grade point average for sports

Departing Boston English headmaster Sito Narcisse spoke at a recent meeting at the Boston Public Schools headquarters. Narcisse's policy that high school athletes carry a 2.5 grade point average was lifted by the school's new headmaster. Departing Boston English headmaster Sito Narcisse spoke at a recent meeting at the Boston Public Schools headquarters. Narcisse's policy that high school athletes carry a 2.5 grade point average was lifted by the school's new headmaster. (Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff)
By Justin A. Rice
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2012
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Boston English High’s new headmaster, Ligia B. Noriega-Murphy, abolished the school’s controversial 2.5 GPA requirement for athletes last week in an effort to garner more participation.

Starting this fall, the oldest high school in America will revert back to the district-wide standard 1.67 (a C-minus average) required for athletes to be eligible.

Higher academic standards for athletes at the underperforming school in Jamaica Plain were implemented by outgoing headmaster Sito Narcisse three years ago, beginning with a 2.0 requirement before ratcheting up to a 2.2 two years ago and finally a 2.5 this past school year.

In the first marking term of this past school year, 108 athletes at English achieved a 2.5 GPA or better while 39 scored between a 1.67 and 2.5 GPA. By the third marking term, however, the number of athletes hitting the 2.5 declined to 90. The number of athletes falling between a 1.67 and 2.5 decreased to 32 in the third marking period as well.

Appointed head master in May, Noriega-Murphy is also eliminating Narcisse’s school-wide policy that made the letter grade ‘D’ – scores 69 and below – a failing mark. She said the school’s failure rate is between 15 and 20 percent and the average GPA at the school is a 1.0.

Noriega-Murphy said she will implement a reward system for athletes who continue to make a 2.5 GPA.

“It goes against my beliefs, [abolishing] the high standards,” Noriega-Murphy, who is also the district’s assistant academic superintendent, said during a telephone interview late last week. “Absolutely the [athletes] were making it. It’s just outstanding.

“The problem we had at English High is at this point we are excluding a lot of students from playing sports. If the school was doing great academically and the school was successful I would keep it there and say ‘Yes that’s what we want.’ But because students are not doing well and students don’t want to be there … this is a way to say ‘Let’s start from the basics and do the simple things well.’ ”

In October, The Boston Globe Magazine featured English High’s basketball coach and athletic coordinator, Barry Robinson — who for years believed lower standards for at-risk, urban athletes was a good hook to keep students in school who otherwise would drop out. But Robinson eventually evolved to become a champion of Narcisse’s 2.5 GPA policy.

“We had something good going on with the 2.5, the culture had changed, the mentality of the kids had shifted,” Robinson said during a telephone interview last week. “Again, it’s just a company policy. We have to go along with it. Whether I like it or not, that’s not the issue. I just have to go with it and we have to make sure as many kids as possible get to that 1.67.”

While athletes and coaches alike initially baulked at the higher standards, Robinson said it eventually became part of the school’s fabric.

“What to me will be interesting now that we have changed the culture of the student athletes at English High School is how many of those kids will reach for the 2.5 or beyond,” Robinson said. “That’s what I’m excited about, that’s what I’m interested to see. Whatever we did in the past is gone and we have to keep on doing what we did in the past to be successful. I can’t sit here worrying, saying ‘I wish we still had the 2.5 or this and that.’ That’s not the issue … let’s see how many kids we can get to participate and get kids to continue to get their grades up.”

Narcisse, who is departing to become director of school performance in Montgomery County, Md., argues that low standards are like “telling kids they can’t do it” and that there is nothing wrong with setting high standards for students as long as they are given the necessary support and resources. He also notes that athletes can’t qualify to play an NCAA sport with a 1.67 GPA.

“So I don’t think the conversation is ever about the expectations for the kids, I think the conversation is what expectations adults have for whether they think this thing is going to work or not,” Narcisse said in an interview last month. “That is for any policy implemented in any place.”

Narcisse said participation in sports increased over the last three years. And under the 2.5 GPA policy, English won city championships in both girls’ volleyball and baseball.

“They said we will get all the nerdy kids playing, I mean it’s crazy,” Narcisse said. “I don’t know how to explain it. I think of it like many of the policies we tried to do. You get push back right away and then you have to push and push and push.”

While test scores improved slightly under Narcisse, he was criticized for firing 38 percent of the school’s teachers along with several other controversial policies he implemented during his tenure at the school, including same-sex classes and uniforms.

And state education officials recently said English has not improved fast enough under Narcisse, according to a report in the Globe. Officials are withholding more than $900,000 in federal funds until the school revamps its turnaround plan. The state could take over the school as early as next year if it doesn’t improve.

Narcisse said he believes changing the culture of an urban school like English happens in “incremental” steps that are not necessarily measurable by standardized test scores.

“The reality is the people are excited about the movement,” he said. “They might not be excited about how we had to push. … The reality is they saw that we had to make movement and now they can say we can actually make this work.”

Narcisse’s program to increase standards for athletes at English started the same year as the Boston Scholar Athlete Program, which Suffolk Construction CEO and chairman John Fish started with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino after the Globe ran a seven-part series on the sad state of the district's athletic programs.

The BSA has established learning centers for athletes at each of Boston’s 19 public high schools known as Zones.

Marissa Rodriguez is English High's senior zone facilitator.

“Regardless what the [eligibility] policy is we are going to continue to build culture of higher expectations and support,” Rodriguez said during a recent interview. “So whatever that looks like on paper doesn’t necessarily matter to the end goal of getting these kids invested in success.”

Noriega-Murphy said she has plans to get the entire student body, not just athletes, involved in athletics. She plans to create a band that will play at sporting events and she wants to have students in a life skills class wash the athletes’ uniforms.

“I want them to feel proud they are supporting the athletes and I want the athletes to see what the potential is of other students that they don’t often interact with,” she said. “We have to show them they are part of a community; one school, one nation.”

Justin A. Rice covers Boston Public school athletics. He can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.

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