Oklahoma high school sports: School officials preparing proposal to help level playing field for teams with long-standing struggles

BY SCOTT WRIGHT, Staff Writer, swright@opubco.com Published: September 15, 2012
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photo - U.S. Grant players hold their helmets up after a 2011 scrimmage at U.S. Grant High School. Photo by Zach Gray, The Oklahoman Archives
U.S. Grant players hold their helmets up after a 2011 scrimmage at U.S. Grant High School. Photo by Zach Gray, The Oklahoman Archives

Keith Sinor knows the coaches and athletes he oversees as the athletic director for the Oklahoma City Public Schools.

He knows the lives they lead and the battles they face on and off the field of play.

He knows, because he was one of them. Sinor was an athlete at Capitol Hill, and later became a girls basketball coach there.

As Sinor, Tulsa Public Schools athletic director Gil Cloud and Putnam City Schools athletic director Dick Balenseifen have worked to prepare a proposal recommending reclassification of high school teams based in part on long-standing athletic struggles, it comes with a personal touch.

In his time as the athletic director at OKCPS, Sinor has witnessed moments like the U.S. Grant football team fielding 19 players last November against an Edmond North team with nearly five times as many in uniform. A blowout before the game ever started, it benefited neither side, and safety concerns were too many to guard against.

“This idea comes from my experiences as an athlete in Oklahoma City schools, as a coach in Oklahoma City schools, and now as athletic director,” he said. “That allows me to have a historical knowledge of the lack of success at these programs. It's something that everybody is aware of.

“We feel something needs to be done.”

The three men have been working for the last several weeks to develop the reclassification proposal they hope to present to the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association in the near future.

They looked at a variety of factors that contribute to continued struggles, like participation numbers and score differential.

They avoided any participation criteria in the proposal, because they didn't want their coaches keeping kids away to meet the criteria. The goal is to increase participation, not limit it.

And a score differential rule would be fairly complex to devise in a way that could be applied to all sports.

So the group settled on three criteria for a team to be eligible to drop in classification:

1. Open enrollment

2. Greater than 50 percent of the students in ninth-12th grades qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

3. A winning percentage below 30 percent for the last three years.

This isn't a proposal for only Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Putnam City schools. This is something they see being in the best interest of athletes statewide.

“We're asking the OSSAA to look at how they classify teams to see if there's something that could be done differently that would allow all programs to have a better chance to compete,” Sinor said.

“This is not just an Oklahoma City issue. We're part of it, but there are more schools affected by it than just Oklahoma City schools.”

Essentially, the door was opened for such a proposal in 2011 when the OSSAA adopted rules calling for private schools to be moved up in classification based on criteria centering primarily on team success.

No longer was enrollment the sole governing force in determining classifications. Performance was involved as well.

“If it was important enough to be included in the private school rule, I think it should be considered to look at the proposal we're trying to get passed,” Balenseifen said. “I think this will definitely be a long process, but I think we have to look at it. If we're truly doing what's best for the students in the state of Oklahoma, we have to look at this situation.”

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The proposal's key criteria

The criteria in the proposal designed by Oklahoma City Public Schools athletic director Keith Sinor, Tulsa Public Schools athletic director Gil Cloud and Putnam City Schools athletic director Dick Balenseifen is nearly a reverse image of the criteria laid out in the OSSAA's rules governing private-school success.

1. The school has open enrollment (public school).

2. Greater than 50 percent of the children enrolled at the school in grades nine through 12 qualify for free or reduced lunches.

3. The school has a winning percentage below 30 percent the past three years.

For a team meeting all of those criteria, it would be lowered one classification by the terms of the proposal.

For the 2011-12 school year, 61.7 percent of the state's total student population (grades K-12) were on free or reduced-cost lunch, according to the Oklahoma Department of Education. The numbers are generally lower by district at the high school level, but the 50 percent mark will still include areas beyond those schools considered inner city.

Of the Oklahoma City Public Schools, only Classen School of Advanced Studies is below the 50 percent mark. All of the Tulsa Public Schools high schools surpass 50 percent. Several rural Oklahoma schools pass the 50 percent level as well.

Here are some examples of public schools at Class 5A and above that have more than half of their high school students on free or reduced lunch, thus already meeting two of the three criteria:

Del City

El Reno

Enid

Guthrie

Lawton High

Midwest City

Muskogee

Noble

Putnam City

Putnam City West

Sand Springs

Shawnee

Western Heights

Opting out: The proposal's Plan B

The authors of the proposal stress the fact that they believe something must be done to protect the athletes at long-struggling programs and give them a better chance to compete. The motivation isn't about having a better chance at winning championships in OSSAA competition, a point that was made with the proposal's Option No. 2.

If the OSSAA is against the idea of allowing certain teams to drop in classification, the proposal offers the idea that teams meeting the same three criteria of the initial proposal could opt out of OSSAA play — including district play and playoffs — to create a schedule or league with other schools in the same situation.

“This would not totally eliminate the great disparity that currently exists but it would certainly go a long way in giving schools the opportunity to rebuild programs and give our student athletes a better chance of competing,” the proposal states.

The proposal suggests strict deadlines for teams notifying the OSSAA in a timely manner of their intent to be independent, and maintains that all independent teams would continue to follow OSSAA guidelines and policies.

Currently, OSSAA rules prohibit a school from withdrawing from the OSSAA to become independent in one or a small collection of sports. If a school wants to be independent in one sport, it must be independent in all sports.

Proposal suggests Super-Class

The idea isn't new. Call it Class 7A, or the Super-Class, or in this case, 6A-plus.

It's the idea of breaking off a small set of the top schools in terms of average daily attendance to make a new class, primarily for football.

The proposal calls for the top 16 teams to be in 6A-plus, which would significantly decrease the disparity between the top and bottom of the current 6A.

According to the average daily attendance from 2011-12 used to set the classes for most of the current year's sports, Broken Arrow is the largest with 4,586.21 students. Tulsa Washington is the smallest 6A school at 1,287.39, a little more than one-fourth the size of Broken Arrow.

If the top class was limited to 16 schools, based on current numbers, Norman would be the 16th school at 1,728.94, not quite half the size of Broken Arrow, but more than half of Jenks' average attendance of 3,077.47, which is third-largest in the state.

The proposal also suggests doubling the number of teams in Class 4A football from 32 to 64, and eliminating Class C, which would not increase the total number of classifications.

In the 6A-plus proposal, the 16 largest schools make up 6A-plus, and the next 32 would fill 6A. That would be the schools ranking in attendance from No. 17 to No. 48 in the state. The next 32 would make up 5A, with classes expanding to 64 teams in 4A.

The general idea is that reclassifying teams in this way would narrow the gap of the sizes of schools competing in the same class, and keep the competition more equal.

The Super-Class idea has been on the minds of those at the OSSAA for some time, and would likely continue to be investigated regardless of the outcome of the new proposal.

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