FOR THE FIRST TIME in a decade, Boston English High basketball coach Barry Robinson’s bench is full of all-stars. It’s a Saturday night in March, so most Boston basketball fans are too transfixed by the NCAA Tournament to care that the city’s best scholastic players are putting on a show worthy of the game’s long-winded title: the 2010 Boston City League All-Star Basketball Classic.
Still, a decent crowd is on hand at Northeastern’s Cabot Center to watch the best players from the city’s northern schools battle their southern counterparts, including two of Robinson’s regular players at English High.
Chosen by his peers to coach the South all-stars, Robinson watches his squad blow its 12-point lead to trail by 2 with 23.1 seconds remaining. South also blows game-tying free throws before its stud guard, New Mission High School’s Osmel Odena, collects the ball. Odena’s Michael Jordan circus-shot knots the game at 70, and his two overtime baskets help the south team win the 80-79 thriller.
The victory fittingly caps a season that has reinvigorated Robinson. He managed to advance English High past the opening round of the state tournament for the first time since losing the 2000 title game. And he did so despite stringent new academic eligibility requirements for athletes at English.
Founded in 1821, English High was the nation’s first public high school. The Jamaica Plain school has struggled for years with low MCAS scores and high dropout rates, but landmark education legislation passed in January 2010 is seeking to reverse all that. The legislation designated English High and 34 other chronically underperforming schools in the state as “turnaround schools” and targeted them to receive extra resources, funding, and autonomy aimed at improving student performance.
As part of its turnaround strategies – which began before the new legislation was even passed – English High’s new standards for athletes required them to maintain a 2.0 grade point average starting in fall 2009 in order to play in the winter season. That standard jumped to a 2.2 last winter, and it’s still rising. This fall and beyond, students at English will need a 2.5 to qualify for sports. The controversial policy is far more rigorous than the district-wide 1.67 eligibility requirement (a C minus average). And although officials at the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) don’t keep records on academic standards, they believe English’s new benchmark is the toughest among its membership of 377 public and private schools.
For his part, Robinson supports his school’s GPA requirements, though a little more than a decade ago, he was dead set against them. In the mid-’90s, after Boston Public Schools (BPS) had bumped up to a 1.67 GPA requirement for athletes, Robinson believed the bar was too high. Many city schools, he maintained, simply didn’t have the resources to help kids meet those standards, and what’s more, the GPA required to play in MIAA-sanctioned state tournaments was then – and still is – only a 1.0. Youth violence had skyrocketed, and lower standards, he believed, kept players off gang-infested streets and in the classroom, where they might excel beyond minimum requirements and even go on to college.
In recent years, however, Robinson realized that players weren’t pushing past a 1.67. “The pattern was that they were just doing enough to be eligible,’’ he says, “and once the season ends, that’s it. Once the season ends, their GPA goes down again.”
Robinson hadn’t realized it was possible to impose the kind of escalating academic goals English’s new headmaster, Sito Narcisse, envisioned, or that the school could get the resources to support them. And he never dreamed he’d be boasting that all but three of his would-be team members had met the minimum 2.2 GPA needed to play last winter.
“It’s like swimming from one end of the lake to the other,” the 54-year-old Robinson says. “When you first start off, you’re like, ‘No way,’ and then when you get to the middle you say, ‘I’m feeling good about myself,’ and then you get close to it and say, ‘I can go all the way.’ And when you finish you say, ‘Wow, I just swam the English Channel!’ ”
As a boy in Kingston, Jamaica, Robinson belonged to two gangs, ran track at school, and played street soccer in tattered shoes with an orange-juice carton for a ball. He had never touched a basketball before moving to Camden, New Jersey, in 1973 at age 16. During gym class at Camden High, one of the state’s most dangerous high schools, Robinson outran classmates on the basketball court, but he couldn’t corral chest passes or sink layups. He never played varsity ball.
Running track kept Robinson off the streets and earned him a scholarship to Florida A&M. After graduating in 1979 with a degree in health and physical education, he was recruited to teach phys ed at Boston’s Carter Middle School. Robinson rediscovered pickup basketball at Jim Rice Field in Roxbury and started coaching youth teams.
The self-taught coach devoured basketball books and eventually led Noble & Greenough’s junior varsity girls’ team in Dedham. In 1992, he took a job coaching boys’ junior varsity at English High with the understanding that varsity coach Jerry Howland would hand over the reins after one season.
Just a few years after taking over English’s boys’ basketball program and talking it up to talented middle schoolers across the city, Robinson had added a number of all-stars to his roster. Boston schools sorely lacked academic support for athletes at that time, so he hovered over players and their report cards. Although never studious himself, Robinson tutored players in every subject, conducted 6 a.m. SAT-prep sessions, and helped his talented players navigate college recruiting.
He helped the kids in other ways, too, paying out of pocket for summer tournaments and at times even letting troubled players stay in his Roxbury home.
With “Coach Rob,” as the players call him, at the helm, the team seemed poised to regain the powerhouse status it had established in the 1960s and ’70s. English ascended in local basketball rankings, compiling a 78-17 record from 1997 to 2001 and playing deep into state tournaments in ’98, ’99, and 2000, losing to St. John’s of Shrewsbury by just 2 points in the final 40 seconds of the Division 1 state title game in 2000.
Three players from the 2000 team went on to play Division 1 college basketball. But another talented teammate, who had been arrested in 1999 for selling drugs, flamed out of college despite Robinson’s efforts to reform him. When two other heralded English players were convicted of robbing a man in 2001, Robinson began to retool his philosophy. Youth violence was increasing in Boston again. Chasing blue-chip talent so that he could field winning teams wasn’t as important as giving the kids already at English something to do after school. Basketball became a carrot to hook students who might otherwise drop out. From 2001 to 2005, Robinson’s teams went 60-56.
Robinson didn’t have the energy to monitor GPAs anymore. Academic ineligibility plagued his program. “One person trying to do it all, I can’t do it,” Robinson recalls thinking. “If I beat the bush, am I doing it so they will pass or so they can play?”
By 2008, help finally arrived. An English and special education teacher at the high school named Rene Patten volunteered to serve, without pay, as Robinson’s first-ever academic coach. Quickly becoming more than a tutor, the team’s “den mother” bought players granola bars and binders and proctored their SATs. After Patten’s first year, all but one player had met the 1.67 GPA requirement to play, and all but one senior went on to college.
The success continued in 2010 as a district-wide initiative, the Boston Scholar Athlete Program, committed to investing an initial $5 million over five years into BPS’s beleaguered athletic department. Patten was now one of 96 academic coaches across the city who earned a $1,000 stipend for the season. “I feel rejuvenated,” Robinson said at the time. “I feel great. The help is there.”
THIS IS NOT the first time English High pushed for more stringent academic standards for athletes. In the late 1980s, the school was the first in the district to institute the 1.67 GPA; everyone else upheld the MIAA’s 1.0 standard. (It’s worth noting that the National Collegiate Athletic Association has required incoming college freshmen to have a 2.0 GPA since 1975; it is considering a bump to 2.3.)
As English jumped to a 2.2 GPA requirement last year, several BPS schools implemented a 2.0. BPS officials are looking at whether raising requirements to a 2.0 system-wide is feasible. Ken Still, Boston schools’ athletic director, worries that adding tougher requirements without stronger academic support would obliterate rosters. “I’m not against it,” he says. “I know you need a 2.0 to even go Division 1 . . . and I know kids can do better. But you have to have [everyone in] that program, and teachers, onboard.”
Still, who was English’s basketball coach when the 1.67 average was adopted in 1987, argued at the time that it was unfair to bench players who passed all their classes with D’s. He said that if athletes had to maintain a 1.67, the equivalent of a C minus, to play, it was only fair that a C minus be the benchmark for all students to pass a class.
Now, he also points to the fact that English’s softball and track teams folded last spring. But Robinson – who is also English’s athletic director – says 92 percent of the softball team and 70 percent of the track team were academically eligible. Robinson says some coaches focused on winning without accommodating players who work, baby-sit siblings, and navigate unstable homes – problems far more complex than game strategy. “It’s not about X’s and O’s right now,” Robinson says. “Until coaches get that, it’s going to be a struggle.”
English’s basketball program itself almost folded in October 2009, when poor grades made roughly half the players ineligible to play in the winter season.
“ ‘I talked to the boys, Doc, I talked to the boys,’ ” Narcisse, the 35-year-old headmaster and PhD, recalls Robinson hollering in his office. “And I told them you were going to shut down basketball.” Narcisse and Robinson were prepared to bench players and withstand pressure from them and their parents. But spiking the entire program wasn’t palatable.
Team captains begged players to do better. Extra tutors covered by a grant and a new resource room for athletes funded by the Scholar Athlete program started to pay dividends: 38 of 40 players in the basketball program were eligible that winter.
When Narcisse boosted the GPA to a 2.2 last year, however, some players, including senior Marquis Lewis, a promising point guard, found themselves ineligible. “That’s when it really set in that I need to raise standards for myself,” Lewis recalls. “Coach Rob said something corny like, ‘If you reach for the stars, you might land on a cloud.’ I remember that.”
The athletes had incentives for improving academically, but the 800-student school seemed to raise its game in the classroom, too, Narcisse says. The four-year graduation rate rose to 59.8 percent in June of this year, up from 54.2 percent the previous year.
English High’s students also showed a combined 7 percentage point improvement on the English language arts and math portions of the MCAS this year over 2010. (English was one of 22 underperforming schools to raise scores by 5 percentage points or more). The Boston Scholar Athlete Program has begun providing Princeton Review classes for athletes, including 20 English High juniors.
Some attribute English’s successes to the extra funding and resources it receives as a turnaround school, including a three-year, $2.8 million grant from the new federal Race to the Top program. The “turnaround” status also gave Narcisse autonomy to make several policy changes, including replacing teachers, extending the school day, and changing the curriculum. And it afforded him more resources to monitor students and their progress. But Narcisse believes a culture of achievement is as powerful as extra resources. This fall, students are sporting preppy V-neck sweaters and cardigans with an embroidered “E.” The mandatory uniforms are considered cool because students designed them.
“What we end up doing in our society is we’re giving our young people excuses,” Narcisse says of low standards. “I tell them, ‘I got it, you’re struggling. I get it, you come from a tough background. I understand. Great. I know we have to help you do this . . . but I’m not going to tell you that you can’t get to the next level.’
“We’re not in the saving business. We’re in the teaching business, and I teach kids how to save themselves.”
Robinson remains a believer. Making a 2.5 will be a “nonissue” in five years at English, he says, because “everyone is going to be walking around here with a 3.0 and above.”