Dustin Hagler, a 17-year-old senior who plays on both the offensive and defensive lines for Hoover High, and is also the senior class president, said that he saw students in the hallways who would make good football players, but that they consistently resisted his recruiting efforts.
“It’s hard when you lose,” he said. “But it’s not just losing. It’s almost like you feel beat down. Like the odds are stacked against you.”
Over the past few years, officials overseeing high school sports in states including Minnesota, Oregon and Colorado have added provisions allowing schools with high poverty levels to drop down to lower athletic divisions. Washington State will introduce the idea next year, and Iowa is considering it.
Schools are commonly assigned to athletic divisions based on their enrollment, and Hoover, with more than 1,000 students, has long been placed in the state’s top athletic division, competing with the largest of Iowa’s public and private high schools. Its traditional rivals include city schools with relatively high poverty rates, but also suburban schools that have won the past nine state championships.
Ways of gauging poverty levels vary, but state athletic officials typically rely on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. At Hoover, about 75 percent qualify, compared with about 10 percent, on average, in neighboring suburban schools. At Indianola High, Hoover’s opponent on that recent game night, about 21 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
The debate over whether economic status should have a place in deciding a sports team’s competition has been fierce. The issue has led to awkward conversations among school administrators, parents and teammates, raising questions about fairness and the meaning of high school sports.