Pinned Down

Prov School Dept releases hold on high school wrestlers after educator goes public

It has been an amazing transformation over the past three seasons: The Hope High School wrestling team began the year confident it would be in the hunt for a Division 2 state title — something that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“I started wrestling my freshman year,” Junior Xavier Lopez said. “First season, first practice, I was in.”
Xavier is one of the big reasons why the team has enjoyed success. Two years ago he started to bring others at Hope in to build a team. New coaches, new team, new attitude. It became a family and kept some kids from wandering down the wrong path.
But last summer, Xavier and fellow teammate and junior Jonas Xiong, who were both involved in ROTC at Hope, wanted to go into the medical field. They were accepted to The Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College. It is a brand new charter school in downtown aimed at those wanting to become nurses. In the boys’ case, military nurses.
But what about continuing to wrestle for Hope? The small new school did not have a team?
“That was is one of my first questions at the open house, because I knew I didn’t want to give up wrestling,” Xavier said. “They told me, ‘Yeah, it should not be a problem. We’re going to have an affiliation with interscholastic league and I would be able to wrestle.’”
But just as the season began in early December, the Providence School Department administration told Xavier and Jonas they couldn’t wrestle for Hope because of where they lived in the city, even though they had attended Hope for two years. The department pointed to a Rhode Island Interscholastic League Rule that talks about a student’s “feeder” school — based strictly on address.
And that means Jonas and Xavier — Hope’s captain — have to watch from the sidelines. The administration said Xavier, based on his address, should be wrestling for Central High. The problem: Central doesn’t have a wrestling team. So they said he could practice with his Hope teammates and possibly wrestle in meets if someone from the other team was willing to take him on. But any of the points he scored wouldn’t count.
Because of his address, Jonas would have to wrestle for the Juanita Sanchez school. Because of its size, Sanchez doesn’t have a team of its own and has partnered with Providence Country Day — a private school in East Providence. For Jonas, those logistics were daunting.
“I don’t think it would have worked. It’s just too far for me to travel,” Jonas told the Hummel Report.
Enter Dr. Robert Pilkington, the superintendent of the new Nurses Institute Middle College. Pilkington wrote an impassioned letter to Providence School Superintendent Susan Lusi in December saying the decision made no sense. He got nowhere.
“For the first time, something curious happened,” Pilkington said. “We had two different placements for kids. The first was an academic placement and that’s Hope. And then we have an athletic placement and that’s some other school. And there’s not one person I’ve talked to who didn’t say there was something inherently wrong with the decision.”
The superintendent’s office closed ranks after the Hummel Report began to investigate last month, and coaches and administrators were told not to talk publicly with us about the case. The administration said it had no option in the matter and was simply following interscholastic league rules. Supt. Lusi refused our repeated requests for an interview to talk about the case.
Pilkington said the superintendent and the district Athletic Director Andre Thibeault dropped the ball initially by not going to bat for the boys with the interscholastic league, and looking beyond an address on a piece of paper.
Tom Mezzanote is the executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League. He says the so-called transfer rule used in this case is aimed at keeping students — and coaches — from arbitrarily picking and choosing where kids play sports if they go to another school.
Hummel: If they decide in mid-year that the charter school wasn’t for them, they’d go back to Hope. So why is Hope not the feeder school in the league’s eyes?
Mezzanote: Because the Providence School Department stipulates what the feeder school is by the address they live in. We leave that to the school department to determine where that child will attend.
Two weeks ago — after we began investigating — Pilkington sent a letter to the superintendent saying he was not going to be silent any longer and intended to talk with us for this story. Within hours, Mezzanote contacted the School Department suggesting the boys come in for an emergency waiver hearing.
So Jonas and Xavier arrived two days later and after an hour-long meeting behind closed doors at the interscholastic league offices, were granted the waiver. But with just a few meets left this year, it means Xavier and Jonas are coming to the end of a lost season.
Supt. Lusi and the Interscholastic League issued a joint statement last week, insisting in bold print that the school department did nothing wrong.
Robert Pilkington takes issue with that assessment.
“Things are looked at in a vacuum, from a policy perspective, form a legal perspective from a relational perspective and it becomes very easy to say, `It is what it is…’”
And who is more culpable in this case: the school department or the interscholastic league?
“The Providence School Department,” Pilkingston said. “Without hesitation.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization. If you have a story idea or want make a donation to the Hummel Report, go to www.hummelreport.com. Or mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.com.

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