Academics a roadblock for athletes


WARSAW | Corn stalks sprout up behind the visitors’ bleachers at James Kenan High School’s Bill Taylor Field. From the home stands, the fields stretch into the distance.

All told, it’s just three miles of farmland to the south and east of the high school. Beyond those fields, a left turn onto Highway 11 will take you all the way to East Carolina University an hour away.

But for most football players at James Kenan, even that journey seems awfully long.

The Tigers have one of the best small-school football programs in coastal North Carolina. They won a state title in 2007 and have a 76-21 record in the past seven years.

But nobody from James Kenan’s football program has matriculated to a Division I program since Sam Aiken went to North Carolina in 1999.

Star defensive end Dontril Hyman was the next-best chance.

The 6-foot-4 rusher committed to an athletic scholarship to East Carolina in the fall of 2010. But Hyman couldn’t meet the minimum academic requirements and enrolled instead at Hinds Community College in Mississippi. He plans to transfer to ECU in 2013.

“Being a small school, the sheer numbers we can draw from are going to be a lot less than the big schools,” James Kenan head coach Ken Avent said. “But academically, in eastern North Carolina we just struggle for whatever reason.”

James Kenan’s struggles are not unique. Schools across Southeastern North Carolina lack student support programs and lag behind the rest of the state academically. For prospective student-athletes at rural schools, navigating the NCAA eligibility process is a complicated and lonely endeavor.

Passing the test

Some of the best football programs in the state are a short drive from Wilmington. Small towns like Wallace, Tabor City, Warsaw and Elizabethtown shut down for Friday night football.

But few of their players ever get the chance to play in college, much less at a high level.

And while attracting college recruiters to smaller, rural high schools is a challenge, academic struggles derail many players with potential.

The NCAA eligibility requirements are a major stumbling block.

All student-athletes hoping to play in college first must register with the NCAA Clearinghouse website, filling out a short but highly detailed survey with a $65 fee.

Then, to determine a student-athlete’s eligibility, colleges rely on a combination of core GPA and standardized test scores. The scale is sliding, meaning a higher GPA can carry a lower test score and vice versa.

But standardized tests aren’t much of a priority for small schools.

Duplin, Pender, Bladen and Columbus counties all reported SAT scores below the state average in 2010. Only Pender County was within 150 points of the average score statewide.

Not only that, but for the past three years, only Bladen County had more than half its students even take the test.

Pender High School graduate Shaq Hooper is a prime example.

The quarterback for the Patriots’ intricate option attack in 2010, Hooper ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at Duke University’s football camp. He rushed for 1,455 yards and helped lead the team to the Class 1AA state title game his senior season.

But he found himself completely baffled the first time he sat down to take the SAT.

“It was mind-boggling,” Hooper said. “It was crazy. I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way I can do this.’”

Hooper said he plans to attend Catawba University in the fall and play football, but said academics held him back from going to a bigger school.

“I should have known more about the clearinghouse and the grades thing earlier in my career,” Hooper said. “If I’d have done that, I probably would be going to a Division I school.”

Making the grade

The grades themselves also can be confusing, because for college recruiters, some matter and some don’t.

Knowing that different high schools offer different courses, the NCAA instead takes a core GPA from classes in math, English, history and science.

But often times, students struggle to comprehend the difference between core and regular GPA.

Former Pender football coach Tom Eanes has spent most of his career at small schools, coaching the Patriots for the past seven years before leaving for Ashley High School in Wilmington this year.

Eanes came face-to-face with the struggles of trying to educate student-athletes about the process.

He recalled frequently dealing with athletes who barely passed English, but maintained a solid GPA boosted by elective classes the NCAA doesn’t count.

“They don’t want to know what you do in wood carving, art and weight training,” Eanes said. “They want to know what you do in English, history and math.”

And even those students who try to keep up with the NCAA requirements can be confused by frequent changes.

Since 2000, the NCAA has changed minimum eligibility standards four times. In 2013 they’ll change again, as Division II will require 16 core courses instead of 14.

Searching for guidance

School guidance counselors are charged with helping student-athletes stay eligible to play in college. But this area’s rural high schools provide bigger challenges.

Coaches and guidance counselors attribute the lack of student-athletes in college to cultural factors and a general lack of knowledge about the process.

“Some of them don’t even know what it’s like outside the county, and if they’ve gone outside the county, it wasn’t to see a college,” James Kenan guidance counselor Danna Westerbeek said.

“A college campus is not something they’re excited about.”

Smaller schools also have fewer student support services than larger schools.

Westerbeek is one of two counselors at James Kenan, But more like it’s one-and-a-half – Westerbeek’s co-worker is also the career development coordinator.

Schools get federal money for guidance based on the number of students, but the fewer counselors at smaller schools are often stretched thin running other student service programs.

Comparatively, Ashley High School in Wilmington lists four full-time guidance counselors, a guidance secretary and coordinators for career development, special populations, ESL and testing.

Numbers show coastal North Carolina schools, which lack many of the listed programs, are some of the poorest in the state.

Bladen, Columbus and Duplin each identify at least 72 percent of students as needy, and Pender isn’t far behind with 58.6 percent.

Westerbeek, a 16-year veteran of Duplin County Schools, says she works additional hours to tutor students in math and spent parts of her summer supervising summer remedial classes for no pay.

“You can’t look at a child and say, ‘Math’s not my job,’” Westerbeek said. “It’s not about what’s in my responsibility. My responsibility is to get you through school and get you into college.”

And while counselors frequently go above and beyond, there simply aren’t enough hours for 11/2 counselors to help all 533 students at James Kenan.

For student-athletes at James Kenan and other small schools, the result is that they have to navigate the process on their own.

Hooper said he sent out tapes and transcripts to “two or three dozen” colleges in an attempt to get noticed, but few ever got back to him.

Getting out

The new coach at Pender, Tony Hudson, is an example of what can go right at a small school.

Hudson played at Pender and in college at Wofford. He took a pro­active approach to his recruitment, contacting every college that would take his calls. He started in California and worked his way east.

Hudson said that while the process can seem intimidating, it doesn’t have to be.

“It’s actually pretty simple,” Hudson said. “It’s just a matter of knowing to go do it, and having people on you to get it done.”

But Hudson’s case isn’t the norm – both his parents went to college and the expectation was that he would go as well.

Many student-athletes in rural schools are the first people in their families to have a chance to go to college. For those students, Hudson said, the key remains education about the process.

“A lot of the kids coming up think it’s ‘this school writes me, I’m going,’” he said “That’s not how the process works.”

Hudson said it’s important to note that a football scholarship isn’t the only way to play football in college. Financial aid can help, and there are plenty of schools far from home or off the beaten trail.

“I think there’s enough schools for kids to play,” Hudson said. “If they’re willing to do what it takes to go there.”

Under the Line

For rural students in Coastal North Carolina, entrance tests are a big hurdle for getting into college. A look at where those counties stack up against the rest of the state.

2010 average SAT scores by school system

Wake County Schools: 1571

New Hanover County Schools: 1536

Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools: 1497

N.C. state average: 1485

Brunswick County Schools: 1473

Pender County Schools: 1464

Whiteville City Schools: 1420

Duplin County Schools: 1348

Columbus County Schools: 1320

Bladen County Schools: 1284

SAT participation, 2008-2010 (% of eligible students who took the test)

Wake County Schools: 70.6 percent

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools: 66.9 percent

N.C. state average: 63 percent

New Hanover County Schools: 60 percent

Bladen County Schools: 54.13 percent

Whiteville City Schools: 48.83 percent

Pender County Schools: 48.76 percent

Columbus County Schools: 44.53 percent

Duplin County Schools: 43.43 percent

Brunswick County Schools: 37 percent



Source: North Carolina SAT report, NCpublicschools.org