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Darren Cooper on NJSIAA: Open enrollment on the way?

September 22, 2016

A heated argument has broken out over the rise of high school transfers, and state officials are studying the idea of adopting an open enrollment policy for all students.

In Utah.

Meanwhile, in my home state of Louisiana, one of the flagship high school football programs, John Curtis Christian, had to forfeit a 2013 state title and victories for three seasons because standout offensive lineman Willie Allen was living with an assistant coach while attending the school.

New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association project manager Mike Zapicchi has a Google alert set up to keep up on all these issues facing high school sports in the United States.

It’s his job to try to fix these same issues in New Jersey.

“Transfers are in the news everywhere,” Zapicchi said. “I don’t get tired of talking about it, because it’s still a problem.”

As head of the NJSIAA’s public/non-public committee, Zapicchi spearheaded multiple initiatives last year that led to major changes in the way New Jersey runs high school sports.

Of course it’s complicated, because the new formats for football and wrestling separation were passed by the general membership last December, then overturned by then New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe.

That led to the creation of the North Jersey Super Football Conference, and last month the NJSIAA passed a sweeping change in the way it aligns its wrestling regions and districts. Indirectly, the father of both is Zapicchi.

However, one thing that didn’t pass was a new policy on transfers.

That can be attributed to many factors. One might be that the proposed guidelines were a bit convoluted. Second might be that most of the NJSIAA members are indifferent to the problem. Third, does the NJSIAA really want to get involved in telling students where they can and can’t go to school? Open enrollment, which allows a student to go to any school, anywhere, may be the only answer in the long run.

“If you think about it, choice [schools], charter [schools], tuition [schools] are all viable ways to change where kids go on the basis of their academic likes, dislikes, needs and wants,” Zapicchi said. “But yet, when we do it for athletic purposes, the general belief is that it hurts you academically.”

The way Zapicchi explains it, each school district has its own methods and priorities for the way things are taught. The way algebra is taught in Wallington may not be the way it’s taught in Ramsey and so forth, so that’s why the NJSIAA wants to impose a waiting period on transfers: to allow students time to adjust academically.

The latest transfer to cause a stir in North Jersey was Miami commitment Evidence Njoku, who left Cedar Grove to attend Wayne Hills. This case is further complicated because one board of education oversees two high schools: Wayne Valley and Wayne Hills. While some Wayne Valley parents have cried foul, there is little recourse. If Cedar Grove signed off on the transfer, there’s nothing the NJSIAA can do. It would be up to the Wayne Board of Education to impose any sanctions if it found just cause.

“Boards of education have different policies, but whenever you have a transfer and both athletic directors sign off, there is no inquiry,” Zapicchi said.

While not being specific on just how this would be done, Zapicchi’s next goal is to try to put in new guidelines on how the NJSIAA can enforce its transfer rules by Jan. 1.

Zapicchi said the public/non-public committee is still functioning, although he hasn’t scheduled any meetings yet. He expects it to meet quarterly.

The John Curtis case had an impact in North Jersey because one of the wins the school had was over Bergen Catholic in 2013. This now becomes a forfeit win for the Crusaders.

Zapicchi said there’s no specific rule in the NJSIAA outlining that a player can’t reside with a coach, although it’s implied that it’s a recruiting violation and would fall under the Controversies Committee jurisdiction.

Punishment could be the athlete sits out for a year.

There are other things under Zapicchi’s “lens,’’ a word he likes to use, such as making the NJSIAA’s constitution more accessible onlineand providing training for new athletic directors.

Throughout it all, Zapicchi keeps an eye on the rest of the country, but his focus is on New Jersey.