Let’s say a 12-year-old girl comes from a hockey-playing family and has been on the ice since age 4. By seventh grade she can skate rings around her peers and most older kids as well. But despite her outstanding skills, as a junior high student she doesn’t make the high school varsity.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District has faced that kind of situation numerous times during the past two decades. Some younger students have been allowed to “play up,” while some have not. And although it may seem unfair to deny one student and not another, it’s still best for local districts to decide on a case-by-case basis.
In swimming and track, for example, performance comparisons are more clear-cut, making choices easier. But the subjective decisions made for varsity team sports such as hockey, soccer and football are more complex.
In a case from last fall, the Anoka-Hennepin school board decided that a talented eighth-grade girl could not bump a high school student from the varsity hockey team. The idea is that high school students should have first shot at playing and that junior high kids eventually will have the opportunity to play for four years. That’s a reasonable approach.
Before 2013, Anoka-Hennepin’s policy allowed seventh- or eighth-graders to play up only on teams below the varsity level if there were not enough older students to fill out a roster. But in the face of growing challenges to that rule — including an age discrimination complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education — the district made an adjustment. Under the revised rules, about 35 junior high students have joined various varsity teams in each of the past two school years.
Though some families have been unhappy when their kids haven’t made a team, the decisionmaking process has generally worked well. To determine academic and social readiness, the coach and activities director talk with the athlete and his or her parents. Then a committee with representatives from all five high schools, plus three school board members, must unanimously approve the student’s eligibility. Being eligible to play up does not guarantee a roster spot.
These are not easy decision for coaches or administrators, and there’s no way to make everyone happy. Anoka-Hennepin’s policy at least ensures that every request for varsity eligibility receives serious consideration.