Whenever a teacher is hired, contract is signed or student is recruited for a college team at East Lake High School, the discussions are conducted in a room full of plaques commemorating what school officials say is their biggest achievement.
For the past three years, the school’s athletics teams have boasted the top grades in the state. Now that the school has reclaimed its title of Florida High School Athletic Association Academic Team Champion this year, East Lake High’s athletic coordinator and swim coach, Timothy O’Keefe, will have to do some rearranging to fit a slew of new plaques on the wall.
“It’s definitely the one accolade we’re most proud of,” O’Keefe said. “We have great teachers, great coaches, but it’s really just the kids that are willing to put in the effort. Every day at lunch I have kids doing homework, they ask me questions at practice, they help each other.”
Each school in the state submits a cumulative grade-point average for any sports team eligible for district playoffs when it’s a 3.0 or higher unweighted. The Florida High School Athletics Association then awards each school points and ranks them in categories according to enrollment.
The state has only named overall academic champions since the 2010-2011 school year, but each year the East Lake High Eagles have earned the best grades overall, a tradition that head football coach Bob Hudson sees continuing in the years to come. Very few high school athletic departments in the state put as much emphasis on academics as East Lake, which is an A school, he said.
Students across the state are required to maintain a 2.0 GPA to play for their schools, but few schools offer team-led study sessions. Coaches often pitch in to help a struggling student with his homework, and teachers regularly talk to coaches about how their students perform in class. Students in all sports at East Lake practice every day but can be excused if they have tutoring.
“We’re trying to make good students great and average students good, and so far it’s really worked out,” Hudson said. “We try to explain to them that football is going to end someday, and then what else are you going to do? Now that we’ve won it a few years they see it as another stat or a challenge; we can win on the field and on the classroom.”
Each week, players are required to let Hudson check over their grades. If they don’t have any D’s or F’s, they don’t have to show him their grades next week. If they’re struggling, the coaches make sure they get tutoring help, and Hudson keeps reviewing their grades.
Students who don’t turn in their grades hit the fields to run drills in what Hudson calls “extra opportunity to make yourself better.”
Jared Gleason, a 17-year-old junior, only neglected to turn in his grades one time. Once was enough, he said.
“I don’t know who is tougher: my parents or coach,” Gleason said.
Though the school has won the academic award as a whole for the past three years, the football team is the only squad at the school that has clinched that honor individually for the past three years. It’s the eighth time the football team has posted the highest grades in the county.
Given the team’s 11-2 record last year, spring football practice is often populated with scouts from top programs across the nation. East Lake’s players aren’t always the biggest or strongest on the field, but the team excels because the students can outsmart their competition, Hudson said.
The biggest motivation to keep grades up comes from the students themselves, said 16-year-old junior Devin Abraham. There are alumni from the program playing on sports teams at MIT and Yale. Some former players have become nuclear engineers or been offered jobs at Fortune 500 companies straight out of college.
“I want to go into the NFL, I want to be successful too, but we all know if we don’t make the grades we don’t play,” Abraham said.