Dist. 11 allows limited participation for middle schoolers in varsity sports

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board quietly passed a revised high school athletics policy at a work session Sept. 9.

The District 11 School Board revised the high school athletics policy at a Sept. 9 work session. The new policy allows limited participation of seventh- and eighth-grade athletes on varsity teams. Pictured, the Anoka boys’ cross country team leaves from the starting line during a recent meet. Photo by Jason Olson

The District 11 School Board revised the high school athletics policy at a Sept. 9 work session. The new policy allows limited participation of seventh- and eighth-grade athletes on varsity teams. Pictured, the Anoka boys’ cross country team leaves from the starting line during a recent meet. Photo by Jason Olson

The new policy allows middle school students to “accelerate,” participating on high school varsity teams if administrators from all five high schools and select school board representatives approve their request to do so.

At this time, the policy is only in effect for the 2013-2014 school year. Further board action is required to make the policy changes more permanent.

There was no discussion about the policy at the work session. It was approved as a consent agenda item.

Although the Minnesota State High School League allows for seventh- and eighth-grade athletes to compete at the varsity level, District 11 restricts their participation.

Unchanged in policy, seventh- and eighth-grade students can participate in high school athletics to make a team viable, to fill out a roster.

High school soccer and swimming have seen the most seventh- and eighth-grade participants in the past, according to Associate Superintendent of High Schools Jeff McGonigal in an interview after the board approved the policy.

New to the policy are provisions that seventh- and eighth-grade athletes can get special permission to play varsity if their skill level warrants it.

Seventh- and eighth-grade students would need an “exceptional time or score” to be awarded membership on a varsity team, McGonigal said. He began drafting the new policy this spring with input from coaches, athletes, parents and professionals.

The new policy states that a seventh- or eighth-grade student’s participation will not be allowed if high school athletes will be cut from or denied a spot on the varsity and junior varsity teams. High school students can write a formal request to limit their participation.

Prior to this month’s changes, the last revisions came in 2008 when the board tightened the language surrounding seventh- and eighth-grade athletic participation.

The goal was to keep positions on high school teams for high school students who had worked hard to earn the spots, according to School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann, vice chairperson when the board approved 2008 revisions, in an interview after the work session.

Middle school students will eventually be high school students, he said.

The “acceleration” portion of the policy was added after much testimony from the community, Heidemann said.

Under the new policy, McGonigal expects that “the very few” will be awarded membership on varsity teams.

Five administrators – one from each high school – and two school board members will review applications from seventh- and eighth-grade athletes. For a middle school student to play varsity, the decision must be unanimous.

Feedback on the new policy has been mixed.

The policy is difficult for some to swallow when other districts allow seventh- and eighth-grade students to play varsity with less impediment, McGonigal said.

The new policy is more in line with those of other Minnesota school districts, but District 11 will likely employ more stringent standards than other districts when it comes to approving seventh- and eighth-grade play-up requests, McGonigal said.

In one week, McGonigal expects seventh- and eighth-grade students to start applying for participation in fall sports.

Parent Brandon Paulson said that his daughter, Sydney Paulson, an eighth-grade cross country and track athlete, may be among them. He said that her times in cross country place her among Anoka High School’s top five varsity runners.

He is happy with the policy’s progress, but looks for further changes in the future, Paulson said. “I’m trying to still stay positive,” he said.

“It’s a step in the right direction because there’s change in [the school board’s] thinking,” said Jodi Andrews, parent of eighth-grade and senior swimmers in the district.

Like Paulson, she said there is still work to be done. “It’s still not equitable for Anoka-Hennepin schools,” Andrews said.

She points to the district’s tag line – “A future without limit” – as something the board disregards with this policy.

“All points of view on this one are probably right,” McGonigal said, calling the play-up issue a complicated one.

Olivia Koester is at olivia.koester@ecm-inc.com

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