A fresh start for low expectations

After more than two years  of community-wide and bipartisan struggles to raise the bar for everyone in Cleveland schools, a sudden and incongruous shift has dropped expectations to a new low, at least for some of its freshman, just in time for the start of a new school year today.

The Freshman Fresh Start was recently approved by the school board of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD). The resolution allows incoming freshmen to participate in extracurricular activities (sports and clubs) despite low grades that, under the current regulations for all other grades, would make them ineligible. Instead, incoming freshmen are now only required to pass (receive a “D” or higher) a minimum of five subjects in the preceding grading period. (For the first quarter of the year, eligibility would be based on the last quarter of the preceding year.) Formerly, the policy required that students a) not receive a failing grade in the previous grading period, b) maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher in the previous grading period, and c) maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 throughout the year.

It sounds innocent enough, but upon closer inspection, the implications are far-reaching and appalling. Incoming freshmen are now eligible for extracurriculars even if they fail one of their classes—never mind if that class is English language arts or math—in the preceding quarter. Thus, incoming freshmen qualify for extracurriculars even if their fourth quarter report card has all D’s and one F, thereby finishing with a.83 GPA. Even worse, incoming freshman are eligible for extracurriculars if they have an obscenely low cumulative GPA made up of a majority of F’s, as long as they managed to get at least straight D’s and one F on their last report card. 

Let’s paint a clearer picture. What you see below is a hypothetical eighth grade report card that, thanks to the Freshman Fresh Start, allows its owner to participate in extracurriculars in CMSD:


This report card calculates to a .2 cumulative GPA. Nevertheless, this student, provided he or she is enrolled in the first grading period after advancement from eighth grade, is eligible for extracurriculars with CMSD. But wait. If this student has that many F’s, wouldn’t most assume that he or she would be retained? Not necessarily. According to CMSD’s website, students can be retained “not more than twice before entering high school”. So, if this student was retained in two previous grades, he cannot be retained again in eighth grade. The student gets to go to high school—and be eligible for extracurriculars. 

The district’s chief executive officer, Eric Gordon, says this is a chance for students to become “a part of that school’s life, rather than being shut out right at the start.” This is a nice sentiment, but I can’t help but wonder what part of “school life” Mr. Gordon is talking about. If he’s talking about throwing on a jersey, marching with a trumpet, or sitting down at chess practice, sure, he’s right. But what about school in “school life”? What about math class, and English literature, and biology, and all those pesky things that actually determine whether or not a student gets a diploma? Giving students a fresh start on the athletic field or in a club doesn’t mean they get one in the classroom. The classes students take in high school build on the classes that they took (and in this case, may have failed) in eighth grade. What kind of message are we sending kids if we tell them that their failing grades are acceptable enough for sports and clubs, and then tell them the complete opposite when they inevitably begin to fail ninth grade courses?

Don’t get me wrong: I love extracurriculars. I know how meaningful they can be as a motivator and a confidence builder for students. I was a student-athlete in high school and college, and I’ve coached athletics at the high school and collegiate level. I taught in a low-performing high school, and I can’t forget what I learned about the dangers of lowering academic expectations for the sake of extracurricular pursuits. One student in particular whom I adored—let’s call him James—failed my class fourth quarter and was unable to play football in the fall as a result. Could I have cut James a break, given him a few points to lift him to a D, and trusted that he would try harder in the next grade because he got a “fresh start”? I could have. But I didn’t.

At some point, kids have to learn what it means to be an adult. That’s what high school is all about: transitioning to adulthood. Allowing freshmen—who are only four years away from being legal adults who can vote and fight for our country—to escape consequences just so they can slide on a jersey, join the school play, or “be a part” of a school is wrong. It sells them short of their potential, teaches them that they are entitled to things they have not earned, and sets them up for failure in the future. It’s time Cleveland straighten-out its priorities: get the academics right first, and then focus on the extras. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.