They are often given the label “diploma factories.”
Some of the most highly touted high school basketball players attend them.
And a number of current Division I men’s basketball players graduated from one in Philadelphia.
Fifth-year academies scattered throughout the country – about a dozen of them, according to a New York Times investigation – are serving as a fifth year of high school for student-athletes who would not have otherwise qualified for eligibility in their first year in college.
North Philadelphia’s Lutheran Christian Academy houses some of these student-athletes. The school has been at the root of national scrutiny, stemming from investigations by the Times and the Washington Post.
Although accredited four-year prep schools remain educationally sound, unaccredited schools like Lutheran promise students improved grades and standardized test scores and, in return, provide them with increased athletic exposure to the some of the top Division I college basketball programs.
And one of Lutheran’s most recent graduates plays for Temple’s men’s basketball team.
The effect these schools could have on the D-I recruiting circuit is yet to be determined. An additional year at a prep school means basketball players will be a year closer to the 19-year-old NBA Draft eligibility age prior to their enrollment in a college or a university.
Located three blocks west of Temple Hospital is a community center named HERO, where Lutheran’s all-male student body attends classes. The school’s academic standards do not meet those of the state, as the school is not accredited by Pennsylvania’s Department of Education.
A current student at Lutheran said his classes are being taught by an assortment of unidentified teachers. Published reports have indicated that Lutheran’s coach, Darryl Schofield, 37, who led Lutheran to a 30-5 record this season, had also taught courses.
The Temple News attempted to reach Schofield at three locations – his home, Lutheran’s practice facility at Belfield Recreation Center in North Philadelphia, and at HERO. Schofield refused comment at each.
It is widely believed that students who attend schools like Lutheran are there to improve their standardized test scores, grade point averages or both.
However, Lutheran primarily remains in operation to allow players to compete in renowned prep school basketball tournaments and provide them exposure to college basketball recruiters.
Questions have circled universities that have recruited players from these schools. George Washington, whose men’s basketball team has two former Lutheran players on its roster, released a statement saying the pair was brought to the school on a mix of academic and athletic merit.
Currently, Temple men’s basketball coach Fran Dunphy has a player on his roster who played at Lutheran – freshman reserve Dionte Christmas.
“But, what’s good is that of the three kids that are committed to Temple for next year, none of them are out of that prep school setting,” Dunphy said.
“It hasn’t affected us yet and most likely will never affect us.”
Dunphy was speaking of the caliber of student-athlete who enters college academically unprepared.
With the grades and standardized test scores they attained in high school, some of Lutheran’s students would not qualify for immediate eligibility at Division I programs.
Assuming a student-athlete has completed all 14 core courses in high school deemed necessary by the NCAA, the organization’s athletic eligibility standards work on a sliding scale.
According to the NCAA, a student-athlete needs a score of at least 400 on his SAT to earn eligibility, if he had earned a 3.55 or higher GPA. By the same token, if he had accumulated a 2.00 GPA in high school, he would need an SAT score of 1010 or better.
A greater dilemma in allowing schools like Lutheran to continue educating students, Dunphy said, is the perpetuation of those schools abusing players for their athletic prowess by not providing promised academic services.
Non-traditional prep schools are removing any hope for student-athletes and their academic futures, failing to prepare students for college’s academic rigors, Dunphy said.
While Dunphy said he is not “100 percent familiar” with Lutheran’s situation, the coach said problems are bound to arise when schools promise education and opportunities in the game of basketball and do not deliver.
“If they are abusing the privilege of educating these kids and preparing them for [basketball careers], then that would disappoint me,” Dunphy said.
“… And there are a lot of good, traditional prep schools that kids would benefit by,” he continued, “but I think the critical piece is that we help these kids get an education.”
Dunphy added that he would recruit players from such schools on a case-by-case basis.
A TEMPLE CONNECTION
Before his time at Temple and at Lutheran, Christmas was one of Philadelphia’s most prolific scorers at Samuel Fels High. He was made a Philadelphia Daily News 30-Year City All-Star selection.
Through a Temple Athletic Department representative, Christmas and former assistant coach Dan Leibovitz, who recruited Christmas, were made unavailable for comment.
Several D-I schools heavily recruited Christmas, a star guard, said John Bissett, his former coach at Fels. Bissett had his uncertainties when Christmas, who was torn between playing college ball and spending a year at a prep school, made his decision.
“I had only coached two years in the Public League so I had questions about prep schools. I didn’t understand why he would go there if he had so much talent to begin with.”
Bissett, a physical education teacher at Fels, never taught Christmas in a classroom setting, but said the 6-5 Christmas “was always a pretty good student.”
“I believe he was a B-average student,” he said. “I mean, he’s not No. 1 in the class, but he’s a bright kid.”
Despite Lutheran’s negative reviews, Christmas shined both on the hardwood and in the classroom at Temple. As the Owls’ top bench player last year, Christmas collected nearly four points and two rebounds per game.
Most importantly, though, Christmas registered time in each of Temple’s 32 games, and did not incur a single academic violation.
Schofield, Christmas’ coach at Lutheran, remained mum about Lutheran’s current academic standing and about Christmas, but Darrell Mosley did not.
Mosley, of Chester, Pa., recently finished his first season at Lutheran. The 19-year-old guard said he enrolled at Lutheran for two reasons: first, he sought help in English class. He also desired exposure to some of the nation’s top college coaches.
At the time he was interviewed, Mosley remained undecided whether he would stay one more season at Lutheran, where he received limited playing time, or move on to college.
“Wherever I can go – I don’t really care – it doesn’t matter to me, as long as it’s a free education I’m getting,” Mosley said.
Schofield does not speak regularly of Lutheran’s questionable academic standards, according to Mosley, but the coach has focused on improving his players for the next level. Mosley would not specify if that improvement was on the court, in the classroom or both.
While Mosley’s school has fallen into question, he pointed to Christmas’ academic and on-court achievements at Temple as a beacon of hope for him and his Lutheran teammates.
“It’s one of those things he can look back on, having played and gotten good minutes at Temple,” Mosley said. “He can say, ‘Lutheran did me some good.'”
REASONS FOR ATTENDING
Mosley isn’t alone.
A senior at Neumann-Goretti High in Philadelphia, Earl Pettis was getting D-I attention from the likes of Temple, George Washington, La Salle and Seton Hall. But low test scores will postpone the start of his college career.
“I just don’t have the numbers to go to any of those schools,” Pettis said. “I really messed up my freshman year. … I need to get my grades up and get stronger.”
The 6-5, 200-pound guard averaged 21.8 points per game as a senior at N-G. Pettis said he accepts that he could be playing college ball next season had it not been for his grades.
Pettis has heard of academically challenged prep schools. He added that he has stayed away from them in his search to find one to attend. He has narrowed down his search to two schools – Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., or the Winchendon School in Winchendon, Mass.
Pettis could not offer any advice to the students of problematic prep schools, but he provided his recipe for making a strong decision.
“I’m not too sure what I was looking for when I started, but I want to go somewhere that’s close to home, not too far away, and is good academically and athletically,” he said.
Pettis said attending a prep school would increase his chances of landing at a more proven D-I program than those that initially recruited him.
He added that he would not feel remorse in leaving behind schools from mid-major conferences – those that generally fail to land blue-chip recruits – that had originally pursued him. Both Temple and La Salle, of the Atlantic Ten Conference, offered Pettis a scholarship.
The state does not recognize Lutheran as an accredited institution. The Association for Christian Schools International, which lists Lutheran as an active member, does not accredit it, either.
The ACSI is a legitimate accrediting organization, which has been approved by the Middle States Association. John W. Storey, the Mid-Atlantic regional director of the ACSI, said the differences between membership and the ACSI accreditation are staggering.
“Lutheran Christian is not accredited by us, nor are they in any stage of accreditation with us,” Storey said. “… I have received an informal phone call, but that’s not official. That [phone call] is almost off the record. They have made no steps toward that and are nowhere near that.”
Accreditation with the ACSI involves a five-step process, where a team of representatives visits the school to follow up on the institution’s self-evaluation.
“Being a member, that’s a relatively low threshold,” he said.
“It’s like the YMCA. You might join to use the pool,” he continued, “but if you were to apply for a position there, the research and investigation put into finding your background would be a bit more rigorous.”
The NCAA is in the process of cracking down on prep schools. In late February, the NCAA said it would look to pass what President Myles Brand called “emergency legislation” pertaining to prep schools that had constructed their foundation on basketball programs.
The legislation, which was to be written and voted on by the NCAA’s member institutions this month, could be put into action as early as next month. It would give the NCAA additional abilities, like the capacity to visit a school that it suspects to be out of accordance with customary educational systems.
“If it is passed, the legislation is meant to ensure that schools are doing what they are promising, and that student-athletes are graduating from college with meaningful degrees,” NCAA representative Kent Barrett said. “That’s always the objective.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.