York High emphasizing academics with its athletes

Patrick Strohecker
  • York High student-athletes are required to attend mandatory, daily study hall sessions after school.
  • York High aims for all student-athletes to have a 2.3 GPA; the PIAA requirement is 2.0.
  • So far, no varsity or JV student-athletes have been ruled academically ineligible from athletics.

York High athletic director Ron Coursey stood at the podium at the front of the William Penn Senior High School cafeteria with a microphone in his hand, scouring the room filled with student-athletes.

If Coursey saw one of the students on the phone, talking to a teammate or simply not doing anything at all, he had no problem calling them out for everyone else to hear.

This is how mandatory study hall works for York High athletes. If you're not doing homework or studying, you're exposed. If you don't have any work to do, then you better find some.

Every day, from 3:15 p.m. until about 4:15 p.m., Bearcat athletes  report to the school cafeteria  for mandatory study-hall sessions. While there, the boys and girls are required to catch up on or stay on top of any homework as well as prepare for any upcoming tests. Several teachers and community leaders are  available during the one-hour session to help students with any questions or assignments. They also keep the students on task. On this day, a Tuesday, a few members of the local semi-pro football team, the York Generals, showed up to mentor the high school kids.

"I've had players come up to me and ask, 'Where have you been the last three years,'" football coach Russell Stoner said. "Solely because the study hall is getting their schoolwork done, their classwork done, their homework done, and they've seen the improvement of their grades. ... Our kids are grinding at it, and they're learning how to be student-athletes. They really, truly are."

The school day at York High ends at 3 p.m., so the faculty gives the student-athletes about 15 minutes to "talk to friends and kiss their girlfriends or boyfriends goodbye," Coursey joked. By 3:15 p.m., they must be in the cafeteria.

The group study hall is a new concept at the school, but it's something that Coursey and all the coaches agreed to do. When Coursey did the study hall at his old school in Pittsburgh, Propel High School, the school saw the average grade-point average of its athletes rise from  1.9 to a 2.4. The PIAA requires a student to have a 2.0 GPA in order to be eligible for athletics, but York High is aiming for all of its athletes to have a 2.3.

York High athletic Ron Coursey has instituted mandatory study halls for the Bearcats' student-athletes. Coursey was approved as the next athletic director of Woodland Hills High School in suburban Pittsburgh back in April. He will begin his new job on July 1.

Once 4:15 p.m. hits, the kids are no longer students and transition into athlete mode. They receive dinner, courtesy of the school, and then make their way to their respective practices.

Buying in: Coursey said he realized from past experience that when teammates are around each other with the same objective  — which in this case is schoolwork — they have more dedication. They're more likely to do the work if other members of the team are also doing it.

York High athletes do school work during a  mandatory study hall at William Penn Senior High School in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.

"It's an environment where all of our student-athletes come together; they bond, they connect, and they all push each other," Coursey said. "And what we're starting to see is, we have kids who are starting to buy in, and, as a result, they are checking their teammates."

So far, it's been working. Through the first three weeks of the school year and after the initial progress reports, every varsity and junior varsity member of the football and girls' volleyball teams is academically eligible.

Coursey said one of the selling points of the program is to motivate the kids to do their work immediately after the school day ends and then go to practice, allowing them to have the evenings to watch television, play video games or hang out with their friends, free of worry about having to study or do homework.

"Most of the time kids fail, it's not because they don't have the ability or are skipping class," Coursey said, "but because they aren't doing their homework or studying for tests."

William Penn High School algebra teacher Amber Deardorff, right, works with sophomore Arman White during mandatory study hall for athletes at William Penn Senior High School in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.

Hard work is paying off: Showing up for the study hall is mandatory. Miss one, and you get a warning. Miss a second, and you're forced to miss a practice and, under Coursey and the rest of the coaching staffs at York High, if you miss a practice, you can't play in the next game. Asked if there's any leniency to eventually losing the warning after weeks of perfect attendance, Coursey said no, because, "if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile."

At first, it took some of the student-athletes time to adjust to the idea of mandatory after-school study halls. After all, who wants to study for another hour after just completing a full, seven-hour school day?

The results so far, however, show that the program is working. The mandatory study hall is part of a culture change happening at York High — one that is putting academics ahead of athletics.

And if more and more student-athletes are succeeding in the classroom,  that means more and more will be performing on the field and court, hopefully bringing improvements there, as well.

"We're going through a culture change here," Stoner said. "And if people are patient, the football piece will get better. I promise that."

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at pstrohecker@yorkdispatch.com.