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Texas district cancels sports in hopes of improving grades

Eliminating high school athletics during a school year is unusual, especially in a sports-loving state such as Texas.

But that's exactly what's happening in this small ranching community where the school district is taking desperate measures to prevent a state-mandated closure due to poor academics. The Premont Independent School District is even deploying its superintendent, a constable and high school principal to the homes of truant students in an effort to improve dismal attendance.

The actions announced this week are not only part of a last-ditch effort to save the school district, but perhaps the entire community -- which some parents already plan to leave because of the uncertainty surrounding the schools' future.

"The school shuts down in this town, the town dies," said Frank Davila, a Jim Wells County constable who also works as the school security officer and grew up here. "This is all we have."

The town of 2,700 people in South Texas has been on edge since the Texas Education Agency placed it on probation nearly a year ago and then last fall ordered that the school district close by July 1. The order has since been put on hold as the district gets one last chance to meet the state's criteria. Failure would force Premont ISD to be annexed into another district 35 miles away and eliminate one of the town's largest employers -- costing Premont 90 jobs.

With so much on the line, Superintendent Ernest Singleton decided drastic action was needed to show the state immediate improvement at Premont High School. The school failed to meet certain adequate yearly progress requirements since 2007 under the federal No Child Left Behind program.

To make time for extra tutoring and test preparation -- and to save some money -- Singleton decided sports at the school will have to wait at least until the next basketball season. That means no baseball, track, tennis or football.

"Sports is sacred ground in the state of Texas," said Singleton, who has been on the job barely seven months.

"But because we're so far behind with student performance I wanted an environment that was academic only."

The problems at Premont are numerous. The buildings are outdated and in need of repairs. The enrollment is dwindling -- 570 students this year compared to about 800 students from five years ago -- and a startling percentage of those who are enrolled regularly miss classes. The district decided to combine its three schools into two last year and only recently broke a five-year string of operating with a deficit.

Carmela Garcia, chairwoman of the school board, remembers better days for the town. She has lived here since she was 3 years old, had a daughter who was valedictorian and her father attended school here as well. But now, she said, the "culture" is different.

Not enough parents are involved in their children's school lives. Not enough students are attending class -- a fact illustrated on a sign outside the high school that compares its 88 daily attendance average versus the statewide average of 96 percent.

"What happened to this great little town?" she asked.

Garcia struggled with the decision of whether to shutter Premont's schools and annex as the state ordered. In the neighboring district, elementary school children could take art and music classes, something they don't offer in Premont.

But ultimately Garcia and six other board members voted unanimously to sign an agreement with the state earlier this month that would suspend its closure order. Sadly, she said, only about 10 parents attended even though residents voted last year to raise their taxes to help the district.

Garcia worries that poor attendance could be their downfall. It was the state's second priority behind student achievement.

"It's kids doing what they want and parents going along with it," said Constable Davila. "I turn blue talking to parents."

That's why next week Singleton says they will begin knocking on doors at truant students' homes.

Meanwhile, townspeople and students alike are still unsure how they will adjust to life without Premont Cowboy athletics.

About 100 of the district's students participate in the cancelled sports.

Cedric de la Garza, 15, said he's been looking forward to playing on the varsity baseball team since he began working out with them in seventh grade. Staying eligible for sports is what motivates many students to pass their classes, he said.

"Nobody wants to come to school. Nobody wants to try anymore," he said.

Patricia Bunch, 36, mother of three students in Premont schools, said she isn't a major sports booster, but she disagrees with the decision because sports helps students stay healthy and keep out of trouble. Even before the decision on athletics, she and her husband had decided to move to Michigan because there was so much uncertainty for the district's future.

That same uncertainty helped Maria Rodriguez, a 22-year-old waitress at a downtown restaurant, decide to enroll her 7-year-old son in a neighboring school district.

"I grew up here, 22 years," she said. "I wanted my kids to experience all the way through high school like I did and now they won't be able to."

According to the Texas Education Agency, five school districts have been closed in the past 15 years. This year is strange, because in addition to Premont, TEA is trying to close another outside Houston.

The University Interscholastic League does not track how often districts eliminate sports mid-year, but UIL athletic director Mark Cousins acknowledged the move was uncommon.

Besides providing extra study time for students, the decision to end the sports programs had a financial component as well. The district has to have two new science labs in its high school by Aug. 1 and must attract highly qualified teachers.

Premont also must pay off a $400,000 line of credit by the end of the year. Singleton figures he can save $50,000 from cutting the spring sports and $100,000 in the fall.

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman, credited Singleton for taking positive steps, but said it will be a challenge to stay open. The state commissioner could halt Premont's comeback at any time if he feels it isn't making enough progress.

"The hole is so deep it's going to be very hard for them to dig out of it," Ratcliffe said.

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