The Person, the Student, the Athlete: Who Comes First in Georgia High Schools?

The Clarke Central football team
The Clarke Central football team runs plays during practice in Oct. 2019, in Athens, Ga. (Photo/Julian Alexander).

Clarke Central High School Football Practice
Clarke Central High School rises over a huddle of football players during practice in Oct. 2019 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Julian Alexander)

Corrie Collier, the Atlanta public school assistant athletic director, has his priorities set when it comes to his students, “We care about you as a person first, then we care about you as a student, and then we care about you as an athlete,” he said. 

 Why it’s Newsworthy: Play it Smart, a privately funded program in the state of Georgia, has given countless student athletes the chance to excel both on and off the field. The program focuses on improving the grade point average of high school athletes to ensure they are eligible to play while giving them a shot at potential athletic scholarships. 

The National Football League created Play it Smart in 1998 to advance the “personal and academic development of youth from economically disadvantaged communities” through the “power of football,” according to press release on the National Football Foundation’s website. By 2002, the program had expanded across all 32 cities the NFL. Since then, the program has grown in Georgia. Two of the success stories are Clarke Central High School in Athens, Georgia and the Atlanta Public School system. 

Playing it Smart at Clarke Central

In 2019, Clarke Central hired Tommy Glenn, a recently retired middle school teacher and athletic director, to run the Play it Smart program for its student athletes. Glenn serves as an academic coach for the students, helping them understand the importance of staying on top of their studies and maintaining a strong GPA. 

Tommy Glenn at Clarke Central High School
Tommy Glenn discusses absences with student athletes on Wednesday, April 27, 2022 at Clarke Central High School in Athens, Georgia. Glenn is the Play it Smart academic coach for the school. (Photo/Julian Alexander)

To ensure he can meet the needs of every student, Glenn created a ranking system which prioritizes students based on their needs. Students marked as “priority one” are failing every class and receive his undivided attention.

For Glenn, showing up is half the battle. 

“A lot of these kids, especially around here, come from single parent families…and they need to know that you care,” he said. “They’re good kids. They can’t help [the] situations they’re in.”

Glenn knows the odds of making it into a professional sports league are incredibly slim. As such, he focuses on helping students achieve athletic scholarships with the goal of graduating debt-free with a degree. 

“These kids can do anything. They really can,” Glenn said. “You just have to find the right way.”

Of the 1700+ students currently enrolled at the high school, Glenn currently supervises 250, which is about 14% of the student body. 

“We encourage our kids to continue to play as many different sports as they’re capable of playing,” head football coach David Perno said. 

The school offers 14 different sports. There are 10 boys teams, and 10 girls teams (some sports—cross country, swim & dive, golf, soccer, tennis, and track and field—feature both boys and girls).

Grady Newsource reporter Cecily Stoute examines the impact of Play it Smart by introducing you to two students impacted by the program, as well as Tommy Glenn himself, in this video:

Effectiveness in Clarke County

According to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, sports can have a positive impact on students’ outlook on life. However, sports can also negatively get in the way of academic success.

“As far as athletics [are concerned] the grades are a distraction,” Perno said.

College scholarships from athletes at Clarke Central High School
According to Thomas Glenn, the percentage of college scholarships has increased since 2019 (Graphic/Erin Wasserman)

The Georgia High School Association requires students maintain a minimum grade of 70% (a letter grade of a C) in classes to be eligible for competition. Eligibility is assessed on the last day of the semester.

Students who fail to maintain academic standards are unable to compete.

“I think we would have an extremely difficult time keeping everybody on pace to graduate if we didn’t have the program,” Perno said. 

Because of the Play it Smart program, team GPAs are now closer to 3.0 rather than 2.5.

“We feel very good about what’s going on here at Clarke Central, especially providing these student athletes with the resources they need to be successful on and off the field,” Perno said.

That increase in GPA is evident in the school’s graduation rates. In the years since the program has been active, graduation rates at Clarke Central have risen dramatically. In 2012, 76% of the students graduated. In recent years, according to a Georgia Department of Education, Clarke Central’s graduation rate has risen to 84.8%.

Not only have graduation rates increased, but more students are receiving college scholarships over the years since the start of Play it Smart. 

According to Glenn, in 2019, 40% of seniors involved in sports received a college scholarship, but in 2021 that percentage increased to 61%. 

Beyond Clarke County

The Georgia Department of Education reports on data from high schools in Atlanta (Graphics/Erin Wasserman)

There are nine public high schools in the Atlanta Public School system, all of which have a Play it Smart program intact. Each of these schools, with the exception of Carver, has seen an increase in graduation rates since the launch of Play it Smart in 2012.

The increase in graduation rates help both the student and the school. 

“Yes, having strong athletic programs is great, but having strong academic programs is even greater,” said Collier.

Collier attributes the strong academics to a shift in expectations in part due to Play it Smart. 

The Georgia Department of Education reports on graduation rates for Atlanta public schools. (Graphic/Erin Wasserman)

At its core, Play it Smart is dedicated to student-athletes receiving the academic help they need. 

Remediation isn’t one size fits all. Every student is different and Collier makes sure that his staff understands that.

“When we’re talking about remediation, we have to make sure we take into consideration that we have to meet the person where they are, and then figure out ways to move,” Collier said. “Because we all know we’re different people. Everybody’s at different levels.”

Funding for Play it Smart

A majority of revenue for both Clarke County Schools and Atlanta Public Schools comes from property taxes. However, the tax bases in each district are vastly different. Clarke County Schools have an operating budget of around $36 million annually, while APS has a budget of nearly $1.4 billion

Clarke County is the smallest county in Georgia by land area and UGA, a tax-exempt institution, takes up approximately 30% of that total land area of the county. The population of the county is estimated to be 128,711 people and the median household income is $40,363. Atlanta, by contrast, has over 300 million people with a median income in the metro area of $64,179. 

Neither school system directly contributes financially to Play it Smart.

According to a press release provided by Matt Garvey, the Vice President for Communications of the Chick-Fil-a Peach Bowl, the Bowl is the sole sponsor of the program in the Atlanta area for all of the high schools in the Atlanta Public School system. In that press release, the Bowl said it has been the source for a contribution of nearly $3 million in funding for the programs at each school.

For the last 10 years, the University of Georgia chapter of the NFF has donated $5,000 annually to schools in the Athens-Clarke County, Georgia school district, including Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals. In total, over the years, the chapter has donated approximately $100,000 to the two schools to run their individual Play it Smart programs. 

Each school within the program is left to its own devices to determine how best to use the funding it receives to meet the needs of its students. 

In addition to the funds provided by the UGA Chapter of the NFF, Georgia Power underwrites a grant for Clarke Central High School.

The Clarke Central football team
The Clarke Central football team runs plays during practice in October 2019, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Julian Alexander)

Playing On

As the Spring semester comes to a close, Glenn will still walk the halls of Clarke Central, checking in with his students until the end. He looks forward to his favorite day: graduation. 

Glenn will be the first one there, watching his student athletes cross the threshold into fulfilling lives, equipped with the skills they need to be successful long after high school. 

“I love to see a kid be successful,” Glenn said. “That’s my whole thing. If I see a kid is successful, I’ve done a great job.” 

The triumphs of these students have convinced these educators that the program works, and both Glenn and Collier hope to see the continued expansion of the program. 

“We’ve shown that it actually helps our student athletes greatly,” said Collier, “we definitely want to continue to push this thing forward as much as we possibly can.” 

Some of the same athletes who have benefitted from the program would also like to see it grow.

“I think Play it Smart…should expand to the whole northeast Georgia,” Zay Brown, a former student of Glenn, said. 

And if Brown had his way, there is one man he would want to lead it: Tommy Glenn. 

“He’s the person made to be over a program like Play it Smart,” Brown said, “he’s trustworthy.”

Julian Alexander, Chris Caray, Jameson Keasler, Cecily Stoute, Taylor Vismor, and Erin Wasserman, seniors at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism, contributed to this story.



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