By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.2, February/March 2005,

It sounds like a good idea: When thereís an exceptionally talented and mature student in middle school, give him or her a chance to play on the high school team. Set up safeguards, such as a screening process for physical and emotional readiness, but donít deny the youngster the chance to compete at a higher level, and donít force younger participants to face someone who can dominate play.

Trouble is, especially in this age of great parental expectations and demands, managing the screening process can be a hornetís nest for administrators. More importantly, it can be a risky, nearly impossible task to make sure that a 12- or 13-year-old is prepared to be on a team with 18-year-olds and face the rigors of high school competition.

So the Katonah-Lewisboro School District in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., decided this past fall to opt out of the stateís process for extending high school athletic eligibility to middle school-age students. "We really had to take a step back and do whatís in the best interest of the majority of the kids," says Richard Beckley, Director of Health, Physical Education, and Athletics for the district. "And that meant keeping eighth graders at the modified [middle school] level and letting the high school kids have their high school experience."

Four years ago, the Katonah-Lewisboro Board of Education voted to adopt whatís called the "selection criteria" process. Selection criteria was set up about 30 years ago by the New York State Board of Education to allow seventh and eighth graders who passed a battery of assessments to try out for varsity or junior-varsity teams at the high-school level. Schools taking part must establish screening procedures and pass a resolution endorsing the process, and it canít be used simply to raid middle schools to fill out j.v. or varsity rosters with low participation numbers.

At Katonah-Lewisboro, the process required a separate permission slip signed by the parent, an examination by the school districtís doctor to determine the athleteís maturity level, a physical fitness test given by the director of physical education or a phys-ed teacher, and an evaluation by the high school coach of the sport in question. "We set standards based on the sport and the level," says Beckley. "The physical standards may have been a little less difficult for an eighth-grade boy wanting to try out for a non-contact sport like cross country or swimming, than they would for football. The maturity level was also different by sport. Someone with a lower maturity level may have been allowed to run cross country, but may not have been allowed to participate in football."

The majority of New York school districts take part in selection criteria, and if thereís a trend, more are joining it, says Lloyd Mott, Assistant Director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. However, many school districts are making it tougher for seventh- and eighth-grade students to qualify.

Katonah-Lewisboro considered raising the bar. It already allowed the process only for eighth graders and not for seventh graders, and discussed requiring an assessment of each applicant by a middle school counselor. But ultimately, Beckley felt the pitfalls outweighed the rewards, and with the superintendentís backing, he advised the school board to opt out entirely.

"The board had received a number of complaints from the community, and I had received quite a few complaints from a wide range of people," says Beckley. "They were from parents of high school-age kids who were cut from teams, and from parents of middle-school age kids who either did not pass the test or who passed the procedures but then didnít make the high school team. And listen to this one: parents of seventh graders who didnít make the middle school team because the eighth grader who was trying out for the j.v. team and didnít make it went back down to the modified team and knocked out the seventh-grader. Every complaint that you can imagine, we got."

But more importantly, Beckley feels that the selection criteria process doesnít mesh with middle school philosophy and risks putting students into settings theyíre not socially ready for. There were no specific incidents that prompted the concern, but the mix of age groups left Beckley and the school board uneasy.

"Thereís really no test that will evaluate the studentís social readiness to be on a bus with 18- or 19-year-olds, and thatís a concern," Beckley says. "Another problem is that high school teams are sometimes expected to practice late at night, and that is contrary to middle school philosophy."

But how does Beckley explain his case to an exceptional eighth grade swimmer who might miss out on a chance to take part in the state championships? "Thatís a disappointment, and I understand that," he says. "But if you weigh that against all the other issues associated with it, it was an easy decision for us. Theyíll have their chance."