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In Iowa, grades versus goals

How one school coped with a state rule that any athlete who fails a class gets benched.

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In this community one hour north of Des Moines, which an official sign says is the "26th best small town in America," there are two things people always know: the prevailing price of a bushel of corn and how the local soccer team is doing. True, Nevada High School fields a plucky girls softball team, and football is always followed closely here in the Midwest.

But it is the Cubs soccer team that keeps the trophy case well-stocked. So at the beginning of the school year, when one of the team's stars was suspended for poor academic performance, it reverberated through the locker-lined hallways here.

Eventually, Andrew Lodenstein, the team's defensive captain, returned, and the Cubs went on to win another conference championship. But the no-pass/no-play rule that kept him on the sidelines continues to divide this town – and indeed, much of the state – in what has become one of the nation's most impassioned debates over academics versus athletics.

Underlying the controversy is a stricture the State Board of Education passed last year after almost a decade of argument. It mandates that any athlete who receives an "F" on his or her report card is prohibited from playing sports for 20 school days.

To critics of the prominence of athletics in American society, that may seem like paltry punishment. But, in fact, it established Iowa as having one of the strictest high school athletic eligibility requirements in the country. Fewer than 17 states maintain any kind of athletic eligibility to begin with, according to the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Of those, Arizona, Ohio, and now Iowa are the only ones with a "one F and you're benched rule." "We're in challenging times, and we need to create challenges for our students," says Gene Vincent, president of the Iowa Board of Education. "We need to set an example."

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