A pilot program allowing selected seventh- and eighth-graders to compete for varsity teams at high schools in the Anoka-Hennepin School District likely will become permanent.

The Anoka-Hennepin school board approved a one-year pilot for the 2013-14 school year allowing seventh- and eighth-graders to join varsity teams. The youngsters were selected by coaches for their athletic prowess, screened to gauge academic and social readiness, then approved by a committee of five district administrators and two school board members.

The committee proposed making the pilot program permanent at the board’s Aug. 25 meeting. Associate superintendent Jeff McGonigal said overwhelming success with almost three dozen examples of seventh- and eighth-graders playing varsity sports last school year, plus the school board’s involvement in the pilot program, makes approval near certain. The board next meets Sept. 22.

“The school board has given every indication that it’s going to work,” McGonigal said. “The comments we heard [Aug. 25] were nothing but positive.”

School board chairman Tom Heidemann said: “I think there is a lot of support and it’s very likely going to happen. We did not displace any high school student-athletes, and some teams got an opportunity to advance their seasons.”

Young athletes of both genders can be approved to compete for Andover, Anoka, Blaine, Champlin Park and Coon Rapids in cross-country, Nordic skiing, swimming and diving and track and field. In addition, females can be approved for golf, gymnastics, hockey, softball and tennis.

McGonigal said the committee approved 11 athletes for the fall season and 12 in both the winter and spring seasons. About 9,000 student-athletes are involved in extracurricular activities throughout the district, Heidemann said.

The pilot program is in place for this school year. Athletes chosen for varsity consideration in fall sports will be reviewed by the committee on Sept. 4.

Before the 2013-14 school year, Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, was the only one requiring almost all varsity teams to be composed solely of high school students.

Complaints about that rule, challenged several times in the past two decades, grew louder in recent years. Brandon Paulson, a 1996 Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler from Anoka, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 charging the district with age discrimination.

His daughter, Sydney, and her eighth-grade teammates Noelle Josephson and Taylor Krone were approved to join Anoka’s cross-country team last year and helped push the Tornadoes to their first state meet appearance since 1988.

In addition, the family of Bryna DelCastillo, then an eighth-grader running cross-country at Coon Rapids, petitioned the school board in 2012 to amend the rule. The board denied the request but a varsity runner declined her spot to allow DelCastillo to run at the section meet.

Under the pilot policy, seventh- and eighth-graders are selected by coaches as candidates based on early-season performances. To gauge a youngster’s academic and social readiness, the coach and activities director talk with the athlete and their parents.

From there, a committee of five district administrators, representing all five high schools, and three school board members must unanimously approve the requests.