This fall marks the third consecutive school year that seventh- and eighth-graders in the Anoka-Hennepin School District can be selected for varsity competition.
How and when officials representing the state’s largest district make their acceleration policy determinations, however, is a cause for concern. Last winter the parents of a girls’ hockey player who appeared to make Blaine’s team as an eighth-grader petitioned the district’s decision to deny her a roster spot.
The player had “a great tryout” according to Bengals coach Steve Guider and projected to land among the team’s top six forwards. But selecting her would have meant displacing a high school-aged teammate, which is not permitted by the acceleration policy.
Started as a pilot policy in 2013-14, it tweaked Anoka-Hennepin’s identity as the state’s only district requiring almost all varsity teams to have solely high school students. Previously, seventh- or eighth-graders could compete for a high school team only below varsity to fill out a roster.
Complaints about that rule, challenged several times in the past two decades, grew louder in recent years. The father of an Anoka girls’ cross-country runner filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education charging the district with age discrimination.
With the policy, about 35 seventh- and eighth-graders were approved to join varsity teams in each of the past two school years. In 2013, three eighth-graders joined the Anoka girls’ cross-country team midseason and helped the Tornadoes to their first state meet in 15 years.
To gauge a youngster’s academic and social readiness, the coach and activities director talk with the athlete and his or her parents. From there, a committee representing all five high schools, plus three school board members, must unanimously approve the decision.
Athletes interested in accelerating in sports such as cross-country, track and field and swimming and diving are more likely to be chosen. The reason, school board chairman Tom Heidemann said, is an objective standard exists to judge ability. Skill-sets that catch the eyes of coaches in sports such as hockey, soccer or softball are more subjective.
“If we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of a high school athlete,” Heidemann said. “A coach’s decision on who can play up is not always about skill. There can be political pressure as well.”
District coaches such as Guider, Don Bross (Blaine softball) and Pete Hayes (Anoka boys’ soccer and girls’ hockey) can share information with their activities directors. But a lack of direct involvement causes frustration.
“I’m not sold on the process because of a lack of communication with coaches,” Bross said, “especially in girls’ athletics where physical and mental development exceeds boys at that age. [Northwest Suburban Conference opponents] Park Center and Elk River are using the best players available, and we don’t always have our best teams on the field.”
Seventh- and eighth-graders are selected by coaches as candidates for varsity acceleration based on early-season performances. The hockey-playing Blaine eighth-grader, whose father requested not be identified by name, scored a goal in a preseason scrimmage, aided in fundraising efforts and selected a jersey number and locker.
Then the district ruled she could not play varsity hockey.
“We told her ahead of time, ‘You may not make it,’ ” Guider said. “They hear that but they don’t.
“As coaches, you’d think our opinion would be trusted,” Guider said. “But through the whole process, the board never asked the coaches if we thought she was capable.”
Heidemann said: “We defer a lot to the activities directors, but you have to find the objective piece because you may get called to show consistency in court.”