Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Houston Academy's Athletic Classification

This fall, there have been many questions and much misinformation concerning our athletic program’s move from Class 2A to Class 3A of the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA). Let me start by saying that our athletic classification is not something we, as a school or administration, can predict or control. Here is what it says in the AHSAA Handbook:

High schools are divided into seven classifications (1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, 6A and 7A) for competition in championship programs.

Classification is based on Average Daily Membership (ADM) figures furnished by the State Department of Education for the upper three grades plus ninth grade students that are retained in the ninth grade.

An index of 1.35 is used to determine the enrollment figure for classifying each private school member. Each private school student counts 1.35 for classification purposes.

Alignments are made for each sport in a class, based on the number of schools participating in a sport. Some programs may include two or more classes in a division.

 Let me explain this in layman’s terms. There are seven classifications, the assignment of which is based solely on our student population in grades 10-12. Every two years, at the beginning of the year, we submit our numbers to the AHSAA. Since we are a private school, the AHSAA believes that we have a competitive advantage over public schools in that we can select which student we admit. Therefore, the AHSAA multiplies private schools’ enrollment by 1.35. Accordingly, the AHSAA took our count of 169 students in grades 10-12 and multiplied that number by 1.35, giving us a total student count of 228.15.  For your information, that makes us the smallest school in Class 3A, even with the multiplier. As it turns out, we were .5 students above the enrollment cutoff necessary for us to be placed in Class 2A. Without the multiplier, we are 60 students smaller than the next smallest public school in our division. When we play Opp this weekend, their 10th-12th grade enrollment is 106 students greater than ours. If you counted 9th graders, I would suspect that their overall enrollment is approximately 120 students larger than ours.

Let me re-emphasize that Houston Academy has absolutely no say in our athletic classification. All we do is submit our enrollment and let an AHSAA committee decide where we fall. Moreover, it is totally impossible to predict where our enrollment will be relative to other schools’ enrollments, year-to-year. In other words, we have no way of knowing (nor do any other school have any way of knowing) what the “cut off” number will be for each division, nor do we know what the student enrollment at other schools will be. Moreover, even if we could predict the enrollment of other schools relative to ours, “kicking kids out” of HA, or denying enrollment to qualified students in order to stay in a certain athletic division would be unethical and contrary to our mission of providing educational opportunities for students in the Wiregrass. I’m sure that few of our parents would want their children in a school that would sacrifice its academic integrity for athletic success.

There is another point worth noting, as well. Two years ago, the AHSAA decided to go from 6 classifications to 7. The idea was to allow for more teams to win championships and have more opportunity for success. However, if Alabama still had 6 high school classifications, HA would fall squarely in the upper-middle of Class 2A (in terms of enrollment). So, in effect, while adding the extra division was beneficial for most schools, given our current enrollment, it has hurt us – especially in football.  

In most of our sports, however, the impact of the move to 3A will be negligible or nonexistent. In soccer and tennis, for example, we were already in a combined classification of Classes 1A-3A. In bowling, we compete across all divisions, and in swimming, we will compete against schools in divisions 1A-5A. In other sports, like baseball, basketball, volleyball, softball, and cross country, we feel like we can continue to be competitive, and even compete for state championships. The real issue is football.

This is only my 4th year at Houston Academy, but I coached for many years at quality, independent schools in both Tennessee and Georgia.  Pretty much everywhere I’ve been, I have been a part of football programs where we have been undermanned in terms of size and speed. That is not to say that we don’t have football players at HA with size or speed, but it’s a matter of depth and number. When we played Daleville, for example, there were two spots on the line where their offensive lineman outweighed our defensive linemen by over 100 pounds. Moreover, Daleville platooned players at multiple positions, whereas we had a number of players playing both offense and defense.  It’s not so much that our players can’t hold their own on any given play, but over the course of a game, the punishment inflicted by larger players on our boys and the wear and tear of having to stay on the field for both offense and defense causes fatigue. When athletes are fatigued, they are more prone to injury. Furthermore, with our lack of depth, when our older and more experienced players get injured or experience cramping, younger players must step in. Many of our younger players have not developed physically, and in a very literal sense, we have our boys playing against their men.  Because of injuries, on Friday we will start as many as five sophomores and one freshman against one of the top ranked football teams in the state.

So with football, we are in a situation that I believe is patently unfair to our children. Many people working in public schools across the state believe that we recruit. We do NOT recruit athletes. However, we do recruit students. We recruit students based largely on academic prowess, but also based on character, assiduousness, and a myriad of other talents that our applicants possess. Yes, some of our students are outstanding athletes, but most of them look at athletics as but one facet of their lives. Very few of our students will ever go on to compete at the college level or higher.

What we definitely don’t do is give our athletes preferential treatment. In fact, the argument that HA has an unfair advantage in athletics is patently false because most high school students are not willing to do what it takes to be successful at HA. Frankly, most kids don’t want to work as hard as our students do, and they would never think of enrolling at HA. As you know, our workload is heavy, and the college preparatory curriculum is difficult. Ethically and practically, we can only admit students we believe can be academically successful at HA. Frankly, that puts us at a competitive disadvantage athletically.

Of course, from the public school perspective, private schools are winning a disproportionate number of state championships. What was interesting, though, was two years ago the AHSAA provided us statistics on the number state championships won by schools that have a high percentage of their students on “free and reduced lunch.”[1] Basically, the AHSAA showed us that, in Alabama, very few ”poor” schools win state championships in ANY sport. In fact, if I am remembering correctly, there was only one school with a high percentage of their students on free and reduced lunch that won a state championship in the last few years. Consequently, to me, this issue is not a private school versus public school issue; it’s a more affluent school versus poor school issue.

The fact that schools with wealthier student populations would win more state championships should surprise no one. They can afford to pay their coaches better, they have booster clubs, they have better equipment, weight rooms, and training facilities. Additionally, middle class and upper middle class parents can afford to enroll their children in recreational sports, provide private lessons and pay for “travel ball,” and afford their children access to sports like tennis and golf. In fact, most of the rural and poor high schools in Alabama don’t even field a tennis or golf team.

Regardless, I am more than aware that we are in a situation, not just where we are at a competitive disadvantage in football, but one in which the best interests and health of our student athletes is not being protected. We do not have an option to forfeit games, though, because to do so would result in sanctions against our entire athletic program.  I do believe, however, that the future could be much brighter, as we have a good bit of young talent in our football program. It is entirely possible we will be able to be much more competitive in the future. I also believe that with Coach Howard, we have one of the best strength and conditioning programs in the state. However, if we find that our student athletes continue to be put at risk, we may have to pursue membership in a league outside of the AHSAA.

Meanwhile, I will say that I’ve never been more proud of our boys. Last week, against a Daleville team that was physically superior, our team never quit. It would have been very easy for our kids to hang their heads and just try to escape the game without injury. They did not do that. Instead, they fought hard, played with passion, and actually narrowed the score differential in the second half. Importantly, too, no one was injured. Anyone who has coached football knows that the easiest way to get injured is to play with passivity or caution. Our boys are not passive. They are leaving it all on the field.

In any case, I would be happy to talk with anyone who has any questions or wants to provide input or advice. Please know, however, that we are doing everything we can do to protect our children and to put competitive athletic teams on the field and on the court.

Go Raiders!

[1] In educational research, the percentage of students who receive free and reduced lunch is used as a proxy for the percentage of students living in poverty.