City schools' elementary hoops policy changed
Share with others:
If a young girl wanted to play basketball in the Pittsburgh Public Schools last season, she didn't have many options.
Only two schools had a K-5 girls' team. Other schools invited girls to play on co-ed teams in a male-dominated 16-team league against boys' teams. And at some schools, no girls played basketball.
Now, K-5 boys and girls will be split as the district revamps its program to remedy years of "Title IX equity issues," or unequal opportunities for girls.
But there's a twist.
If a school can't field enough players for both a boys' and a girls' team, neither team will be allowed to compete in the eight-game season that begins in January.
The district says the new rule is intended to force schools to make more vigorous efforts to recruit girls and offer equal opportunities.
One person familiar with Title IX issues says the all-or-nothing approach could potentially limit opportunities and do the opposite of the federal law's intention to provide gender equality.
Peg Pennepacker, the Title IX consultant for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Directors Association Executive Council and an athletic director for the State College Area School District, said by not allowing a team of boys to play basketball because the school's girls' team doesn't have enough players, the district is "hamstringing" the boys' participation.
"I think doing it this way puts a bad spin on the law," said Ms. Pennepacker, who has a Title IX high school consulting business and was hired by the Pittsburgh district in 2008 to conduct a voluntary audit of its high schools. "The law was never put in place to take opportunities away from another group; it was to provide opportunities for another group."
Title IX is 1972 federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds. When applied to athletics, schools must demonstrate one of three criteria: that the ratio of athletic opportunities for each sex is equal to that of the student population; that the school can show it has been expanding sports opportunities for females; that it fully accommodates the athletic interests and abilities of all students.
The change to the K-5 basketball program, which is offered to fourth- and fifth-graders, is in response to a complaint from a fifth-grader on the girls' basketball team of Pittsburgh Linden K-5 in Point Breeze.
The girl, Charlotte Murphy, 11, of Squirrel Hill, requested a meeting with Superintendent Linda Lane in January 2011 after she learned her season would be canceled because there weren't enough teams in the league to play against. Charlotte is the daughter of Post-Gazette reporter Ann Belser. She and her mother also consulted with the Women's Law Project, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization.
Charlotte told Ms. Lane that she didn't think it was fair that the girls wouldn't have an opportunity to play, but the boys' season would continue.
"I just really like basketball and really thought it was just awful that we couldn't play as much as the boys could," she said.
Jennifer Tyner, the former Linden girls' basketball coach, said parents helped her team's season stay afloat when they contacted schools outside the district and put together a three-game schedule.
But she worries the new rule will only create a difficult situation for girls if a school can't find enough players to field a team.
"It's really a Catch-22," she said. "They'll turn around and say then the boys can't play and the girls will be blamed."
A method she suggested to accommodate the interests of all students is to group the girls who want to play on teams, regardless of school.
Aimee Zundel, a lawyer with the law firm of Ira Weiss, the school district's solicitor, said the district looked into the possibility of creating regional girls' teams.
Ultimately, the district decided to go with the recently announced rule, which officials realize will have the potential to limit boys' ability to play basketball, she said.
"We understand that, but the real motive was to provide an incentive for schools to really work to recruit girls."
Ms. Zundel said the district felt the inequality in elementary school basketball was substantial enough to call for drastic measures correct it.
She said the new rule, which came from a suggestion from a K-5 principal, can be modified in the future and the district would "be flexible in doing that" if the situation called for it.
But Ms. Lane said she doesn't expect the new guideline to take away opportunities from anyone.
"It's not to deny boys, that's not the goal of Title IX," Ms. Lane said. "The goal is to make the efforts we need to make. In our schools I'm reasonably sure that there's enough young women and girls who want to participate if someone asks them."
She hopes the changes in opportunities for the young girls will increase their desire to stick with athletics as they enter high school, where female participation in sports is low.
She said she can understand why many girls didn't join the co-ed teams in the past.
"As kids grow and get a little older, boys are on average are going to be heavier and taller and girls get a little more uncomfortable with co-ed sports," she said. "Clearly if they have a great experience at the elementary level, they are more likely to participate."
Ms. Pennepacker commends the district's attempts to encourage girls' athletics in elementary school but she said she wishes it had reached a different solution.
"Although their intentions are well-meaning and they are attempting to use it as a vehicle to promote interests, it is sad to me that they are essentially restricting or limiting opportunities for boys," she said.
Rodney Necciai, principal at Pittsburgh Phillips K-5 on the South Side, said his school offered a co-ed team before the new ruling. At the time, he said, he thought it was a fair opportunity for all 90 of the fourth- and fifth-graders in his school.
In hindsight, he said his team mainly consisted of boys and the co-ed team might have turned away some girls. Now he said he's promoting the fact that this is an entirely new opportunity for girls.
"This revamped format will hopefully attract more girls and result in a very positive elementary basketball experience for all children," he said.
He is "pretty confident" that Phillips will be able to field both teams this season.
The district should have an accurate assessment of the total number of participating teams in the league after winter break.
First Published December 27, 2011 12:00 am