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Hitting the Books

Long Beach Poly is a football and academic power, but low scores on SAT by some college recruits show it can be a difficult balance

October 11, 2002|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Snide comments and cynical glances--Manuel Wright knows what some people at his former high school, including some teachers, think of him.

"Just a dumb football player," he said.

The big, talkative defensive lineman was a decent student at Long Beach Poly High but is among several athletes who, in recent years, received scholarship offers from major universities only to fall short of NCAA admissions standards because of low test scores.

Many of the players were headed for USC and local media chronicled their difficulties, raising concern at their alma mater.

Poly enjoys an otherwise impressive academic reputation, so alumni complained about the negative publicity. Administrators sympathized with the players while, in the next breath, worrying their campus might be regarded as a "factory" churning out cornerbacks, not scholars.

"Athletics are so high profile and that's what draws the headlines," co-principal Shawn Ashley said. "You're talking about four or five guys among 1,000 graduates and people will base their whole perception of Poly on those four or five guys."

The fallout has effected young men already worried about keeping their college football dreams alive. Saturday, as Poly faces the nation's top-ranked team, Concord De La Salle, Wright will confront an equally daunting challenge, hunkering down with pencil in hand for another try at the Scholastic Assessment Test.

"Everybody around the school knows," he said. "I have something to prove."

It is common for young athletes such as Wright, who graduated last year, to struggle with the SAT. As Poly head counselor Michael Gray said: "There are students who pass their classes but this test comes along and trips them up." With the media, especially some Web sites, focused on recruiting, these cases are often reported.

Part of the dilemma at Poly stems from the Jackrabbits' winning: The football team has a 66-2-1 record and four sectional championships in five seasons. This success makes the school vulnerable to an age-old stereotype that athletic "powerhouses" sacrifice classwork for victories.

The Brookings Institution examined this belief in its Brown Center Report on American Education, asking the question: "How seriously do sports distract American high schools from their academic mission?"

Released last month, the study identified 141 schools that excel in football, baseball and basketball, then scrutinized their results from state-required math and reading tests. The report stated: "Powerhouse high schools score about the same as nonpowerhouses."

Researchers suggested that some traits valuable in sports--ambition, confidence, leadership--also make for good students.

At Poly, administrators have other statistics to bolster their academic standing. The school scores well in the state's Academic Performance Index, earning the highest rank among California schools with similar student bodies.

Football players feel pressure to keep up in class, said Darrell Rideaux, a 1999 graduate who starts at cornerback for USC.

"It didn't matter if I was an athlete," said Rideaux, who was enrolled in the Center for International Commerce, a Poly magnet that focuses on a variety of subjects with a global emphasis. "I've got a 3.4 grade-point average, but the guy on my left had a 3.8 and the guy on my right had a 3.9."

The players of that era formed a makeshift committee "to make sure everyone was in class, taking care of business," said Chris Lewis, a quarterback at Stanford.

They were not pleased by news about Poly athletes struggling to qualify for college.

"We have guys who are not living up to our standards," Rideaux said. "When we lose four guys in two years, we've got to put our foot down."

Poly administrators try to help. They track gifted athletes early on, advising them about college requirements. Players also can attend an alternative campus where classes are smaller and move quickly. The program is accredited but has been criticized by outsiders who wonder if it is a way of easing athletes through the system.

Ashley, the co-principal, believes that if a student is talented enough to attract a scholarship, "we need to do everything we can to get them to college."

Outside help comes from the Princeton Review, a company that offers test preparation courses and admissions assistance. Poly football players get help for free as part of a nationwide program to help athletes at urban schools.

"We make an awful lot of money from the wealthy communities in Long Beach so we don't have much trouble giving something back," said Paul Kanarek, president of the Princeton Review in Orange County. "Clearly the most successful program we have is with the Long Beach Poly football players."

UCLA tight end Marcedes Lewis and USC wide receiver Kareem Kelly qualified with Kanarek's help. USC tailback Hershel Dennis earned the score he needed after several attempts. "Every single day he worked hard and he made it," Kanarek said.

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