Graduation rates at Ridgeland High School have climbed from 54.7 percent to 77.5 percent since 2006, and the football team hasn't lost a player because of academic shortcomings in eight years. The school's graduation rate for blacks in 2006 was 34.8 percent, and last year it was 81.5, and for students with disabilities the rate has increased from 18.5 percent to 41.5.
There are no contracts signed by students promising to maintain their grades.
"It is hats off to the administration and the teachers," Panthers football coach Mark Mariakis said. "It's everyone at the school from the principal [Robert Smith] and his staff to the teachers, the academic coaches, cafeteria workers and custodians.
"It's like winning a football game. There are a lot of elements that go into that win, from the coaches to the starting players to the scout-team guys who might not get on the field but help our football team be more prepared."
The graduation increase Ridgeland has enjoyed even drew how-to queries from Georgia's department of education.
"A lot of it is personalization," said Smith, a former Soddy-Daisy principal. "From my perspective, the whole faculty is on board and the football kids are an example of what is going on schoolwide."
Mariakis and his staff have made it personal, getting reports each Wednesday from fellow faculty members on each player and then meeting with those players and taking further steps if necessary. If there's a D or an F, a coach calls the athlete's parents, but they also talk to the teachers and academic coaches.
"With our players we start relating grades to success in life and what it's going to take to get there, whether it's a scholarship or a job," Mariakis said. "We tell them they can make straight D's and always be eligible but they're going to be no more than a hometown hero. But if they want to get in college on a scholarship or if they just want to get into college, D's aren't going to cut it.
"In a nutshell it's about personal relationships. Kids figure out in a hurry whether you really care, and programs without personal relationships just aren't going to work. Our coaches coach hard, but you're not going to hear a coach belittling or cussing a kid. I'm not saying we have the market cornered. All of that is in the mixture of our academic success and our athletic success.
"The only thing you can ask as a coach is that you're as good as you can be, whether it's 2-8 or winning a region championship. Hopefully this is part of that process."
Jonathan Greene, a senior and one of the team's captains, said academics are a way of life for Ridgeland athletes.
"If you don't have grades you can't play here," Greene said. "It doesn't matter if you don't like your teacher or if you're struggling [academically]. Meeting with the coaches encourages and motivates kids to keep their grades up, and sometimes the coaches will meet with you just to tell you to keep up the good work.
"Sometimes negativity starts in the classroom, and if you aren't doing well there then there's less chance of doing well on the field.
"Coaches have told us that football [participation] is a reward for good grades. Talent isn't enough. You have to study those extra 30 minutes as a student in order to be a good athlete. I'm not the best athlete but I want people to look back and say about me, 'He was OK on the field, but he really shined in the classroom and in the halls.'"
Smith's philosophy is to get kids involved, whether in athletics or ROTC or clubs.
"You want the students to enjoy coming to school," the principal said. "Our coaches are teachers first, and our athletes know they must be students first," he said.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...