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Newton

Newton South, NCAA clash

Newton South High School prides itself on preparing all of its students for college. But last summer, school officials found out that a large number of Newton South’s math, English, science, and social studies classes didn’t cut it for graduates who wanted to play Division 1 or Division 2 sports in college.

The NCAA, the governing body of collegiate athletics, determined that Newton South students who had taken certain Curriculum 2 classes, which are taught at a slower pace than Curriculum 1 and Honors level classes, were ineligible to play their freshman year in college.

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The decision — part of the national association’s effort to ensure that incoming athletes are academically ready for college — left Newton South officials befuddled and led them to appeal the NCAA’s call. It was first reported by a school newspaper, “The Lion’s Roar,” late last year after a recent graduate was denied eligibility to play in college.

It didn’t seem to matter that the students had passed state standardized tests, or that many students who had taken Curriculum 2 classes in the past did well in college, said Newton South principal Joel Stembridge. Also, similar classes at Newton North High School were approved by the NCAA.

“It was hard to determine why they have made their decision,” Stembridge said.

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Every year the NCAA reviews qualifying information from about 85,000 high school juniors and seniors who want to play at the top college level. On average, 10.5 percent of incoming college freshmen are rejected annually for Division 1 play, mostly because they don’t meet academic standards, according to the NCAA.

To be eligible, incoming freshmen must complete between 14 and 16 NCAA-approved core courses in high school, score at a certain level in the SAT or ACT, and have kept up their grade-point average. Those rules will get even stricter for students who graduate from high school after 2016.

The NCAA approves a broad number of classes at most high schools, but it usually deems some classes ineligible. A Globe review of neighboring high schools shows varying numbers of rejected classes.

According to the NCAA eligibility website, Concord-Carlisle High School offers 30 classes, Wellesley High School offers 26 classes, and Lexington High School offers 78 classes that don’t meet the association’s requirements for a core course. Some of the courses considered ineligible include independent study, computer science, child development, and journalism.

School officials in Wellesley and Lexington did not return calls for comment.

Since being alerted last summer, Newton South has been able to persuade the NCAA to accept Curriculum 2 classes in math and Spanish. But English, science, and social studies classes taught at that level are still ineligible.

At least 30 classes at Newton South still do not meet the NCAA’s standards for a core course, according to the website. Eighteen classes at Newton North are listed on the website as ineligible.

Concord-Carlisle officials are concerned that the NCAA rejected their school’s lowest-level math courses, said principal Peter Badalament. The classes are taken by dozens of students, including some athletes, he said.

No Concord-Carlisle student has been blocked from playing on Division 1 or Division 2 teams, “but it could be an issue down the road for students,” Badalament said.

He, like Stembridge, complained that getting answers from the NCAA about how it evaluates courses has been a struggle.

“It’s sort of like when you call the cable company,” Badalament said.

The NCAA generally bases its determinations on how rigorous a course is compared with other classes taught at a given school, said Lisa Roesler, the athletic association’s director of High School Review.

“The coursework must be at or above the high school’s academic level,” Roesler said.

The problem with Newton South’s Curriculum 2 classes came to light last summer when the NCAA deemed a graduate who wanted to play baseball at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was ineligible. He had taken some Curriculum 2 classes.

School and university officials worked with the NCAA to get the student qualified, Stembridge said.

Between 15 and 20 percent of Newton South’s nearly 1,700 students take Curriculum 2 classes, which tend to be taught in smaller groups and at a slower pace to help students. Despite the NCAA’s ruling, the classes are rigorous and do prepare graduates for college, Stembridge said.

But the NCAA doesn’t compare Newton South’s coursework with that of other schools, he said.

“Nobody has come to me to say, ‘Here’s evidence that your Curriculum 2 is subpar,’ ” Stembridge said. “We’re saying it’s taught at a different level, but it’s taught at a college prep level.”

Roesler said it wouldn’t be fair to make comparisons between schools. The curriculum offerings and expectations in a well-funded school will be far different than what a school with few resources can offer, Roesler said.

“The legislation is really blind,” she said. The NCAA’s list of accepted and rejected classes at each school is a guide, so that students can consider the requirements for college. It may mean taking chemistry instead of astronomy, Roesler said.

Newton South parents and officials acknowledge that the school isn’t an athletic powerhouse, but every year a student or two graduates who does go on to compete in volleyball, track, cross-country, or basketball at the Division 1 or Division 2 level.

For that small group of students, the NCAA’s decision is significant.

Lori Lass, a copresident of the Newton South Parent Teacher Student Organization, said she hasn’t heard concern from parents about the Curriculum 2 courses.

“We certainly recognize that this would be a very difficult situation for the families and students impacted by this issue,” Lass said. “Our students work very hard both in their academics and their athletics.”

Newton South officials have been sending course descriptions to the NCAA in recent months in an attempt to obtain eligibility for some of the classes and to determine what criteria the national athletic association uses in making decisions.

In the meantime, the handful of Newton South students enrolled in ineligible classes who demonstrate a potential to play elite sports in college have been moved to higher level courses. Some of those students have adapted to the new classes, but tutors are working with other students to help them with the accelerated work, Stembridge said.

“It’s not without some discomfort that we would have a student change their academic path,” he said.

The NCAA’s staff of 10 reviews the curriculum of over 30,000 high schools and there are usually only about a dozen appeals a year, according to officials with the athletic association.

“The NCAA isn’t casting judgment on any school,” Roesler said. “We’re saying that the courses meet the legislation or not.”

Still, Stembridge said Newton South will continue to try to obtain eligibility for its Curriculum 2 classes.

“We’re not giving up,” he said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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