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At this school, sports are a privilege

Published April 18, 2007

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Paige Pinder, left, and Dani Schulman practice a relay at Gulf Middle School, where athletes must measure up on weekly reports from teachers.

NEW PORT RICHEY - It's a picture perfect Florida spring day - cloudless blue sky, mid 70s, crisp breathable air - and to Nathan Pfleger, it's especially sweet because he's on the Gulf Middle School track dressed and ready for practice.

At 14, Nathan stands an imposing 6 feet tall, and he knows he can win when he competes in the shot put and discus. He took first in a meet just last week. But the week before, he had to watch from the sidelines as someone else - someone not as good, in his estimation - grabbed the glory.

"I had to sit out a game because my progress report wasn't too good," Nathan said with a frown. "I was not happy. I could have done better in school."

The requirements to participate in middle school sports in Florida are fairly minimal. The main thing is, you have to keep a C average. If anyone is looking.

At Gulf Middle, they keep a close eye on student-athletes' grades and more. Each week, teachers rate the students on punctuality, behavior, classwork and homework.

Just one "needs improvement" disqualifies a player from starting the next game.

The penalties grow from there. And they hold firm, regardless of the team's win-loss record. For the first football game of the season, against Hudson, 17 of the 38 players were benched for at least some of the game. Gulf lost.

It is perhaps the most aggressive student-athlete discipline program in Pasco County middle schools. Hillsborough County middle schools, by comparison, don't let kids play if they get an F in academics or conduct, but don't go quite as far as Gulf.

Why do it? The answer is simple, athletic director Jessica Eaton said.

"Student athletes would be looked up to. They would get in trouble and still be looked up to," Eaton explained. "We expect them to be model students. We don't want them to go to high school with the expectation that they can do whatever they want and get whatever grades and still be able to play."

She's pressing for the Gulf policy, which went into full effect this year, to go countywide. District athletic director Phil Bell calls Gulf's effort "fantastic" and stressed that it is a privilege to participate in school sports.

He made no prediction about whether every school would go the same route. It likely will be a topic of conversation at the next gathering of all athletic directors, he said.

Some who like the idea are adopting it. Jeff Koos, who worked at Gulf before becoming athletic director at Paul R. Smith Middle in Holiday, is one.

"Parents love it. Kids, they do like it. They like it because they know they're accountable for it," Koos said. "A lot of them realize their grades tend to go up because of it, and they understand what they can do to keep their grades up."

Paul R. Smith Middle, which opened this year, is not as far along as Gulf, which began the program with select sports about five years ago. But it's on the way, Koos said: "Next year it's definitely going to take the next step."

Math teacher Starr Stevens, who has spent 23 years at Gulf Middle, recommends it. She said she has seen vast improvement in the students' academic performance, not to mention their attitudes, since the progress reports came into play.

The students care about the reasons behind poor marks and strive to correct missteps, Stevens said. That helps them with self-discipline and time management, too.

"It's not that we're being strict on these kids," she said. "We're just teaching them responsibility and how to be successful. ... The majority of these kids that I've seen go through with these sheets are proud of their accomplishments."

Nathan certainly is, and he gives full credit to the school's attention to his progress.

"I do better with the progress reports," he said.

Eighth-grader Lane Miller, a four-sport athlete, said he "actually likes" the system.

"It keeps us in check," said Lane, who has lost playing time in soccer and basketball because he received some "needs improvements." "Because of it, I've kept good enough grades and got into IB for next year."

The system helps Amber Cox, a four-sport seventh-grader, focus on the future, too. She was kicked off the soccer team for too many suspensions and was benched in volleyball and basketball.

But she doesn't want to end up "going downstairs" like others she knows. She figures the progress reports will guide her.

"I didn't get suspended from track yet. I'm not going to," Amber said. "It makes me want to work harder so I can get all satisfactories and actually play ... Work upwards."

The school's no pass-no play rule hasn't won over everybody. One mother complained to the School Board after her son was benched. (She got no satisfaction from the board.) But it has had primarily positive effects on student grades and on team results.

Gulf has fielded championships this year in seventh-grade girls volleyball, seventh-grade boys basketball and boys soccer. It has about 150 students participating in sports, up from about 120 last year.

Soccer coach Josh Eaton said it's all about priorities.

"I tell them, 'I don't care if we win or lose.' Actually, I hate losing. It's miserable for me. But I call them student athletes. It's students first, athletes second," he said.

And Susan Pfleger, Nathan's mom, couldn't be happier.

"I saw between football season and track his grades went down, his attitude went down toward school," she said, watching Nathan practice on that clear blue day.

"Now he's on top of his school. ... Being a single parent, I need all the help I can get."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (813) 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at

Fast Facts:

Gulf Middle's 2007 title teams

- Seventh-grade girls volleyball

- Seventh-grade boys basketball

- Boys soccer

[Last modified April 18, 2007, 07:17:12]

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