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.
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 in which they find themselves.
Glenn knows the odds of becoming a professional sports league are incredibly slim. As such, it focuses on helping students obtain athletic scholarships with the goal of graduating debt-free.
“These kids can do anything. They really can,” Glenn said. “You just have to find the right path.”
Of the 1700+ students currently enrolled in high school, Glenn currently oversees 250, or approximately 14% of the student body.
“We encourage our children to continue playing as many different sports as they are able to play,” said head football coach David Perno.
The school offers 14 different sports. There are 10 boys’ teams and 10 girls’ teams (some sports – cross country, swimming and diving, golf, football, 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:
Efficiency in Clarke County
According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, sport can have a positive impact on students’ outlook on life. However, sport can also be detrimental to academic success.
“As regards athletics [are concerned] grades are a distraction,” Perno said.
The Georgia High School Association requires students to maintain a minimum grade of 70% (a letter grade of C) in classes to be eligible for the competition. Eligibility is assessed on the last day of the semester.
Students who fail to maintain academic standards cannot compete.
“I think we would have a really hard time keeping everyone on the pace to graduate if we didn’t have the program,” Perno said.
Thanks to the Play it Smart program, team GPAs are now closer to 3.0 rather than 2.5.
“We are very pleased with what is happening here at Clarke Central, especially providing these student-athletes with the resources they need to succeed on and off the field,” Perno said.
This 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 increased dramatically. In 2012, 76% of students graduate. In recent years, according to a Georgia Department of Education, Clarke Central’s graduation rate rose to 84.8%.
Not only have graduation rates increased, but more and more students are receiving college scholarships over the years since Play it Smart began.
According to Glenn, in 2019, 40% of seniors involved in sport received a college scholarship, but in 2021 that percentage rose to 61%.
Beyond Clarke County
Georgia Department of Education reports on Atlanta high school data (Graphics/Erin Wasserman)
There are nine public high schools in the Atlanta public school system, all of which have an intact Play it Smart curriculum. 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.
Increasing the graduation rate helps both the student and the school.
“Yes, having strong athletic programs is good, but having strong academic programs is even better,” Collier said.
Collier attributes strong academics to a shift in expectations partly due to Play it Smart.
At its core, Play it Smart is dedicated to student-athletes getting the academic help they need.
Sanitation is not unique. Every student is different, and Collier makes sure his staff understands that.
“When we talk about remediation, we have to make sure that we take into account that we have to meet the person where they are and then find ways to get around,” Collier said. “Because we all know we are different people. Everyone is at different levels.
Funding for Play it Smart
The majority of Clarke County Schools and Atlanta Public Schools’ revenue comes from property taxes. However, the tax bases of each district are very different. Clarke County schools have an operating budget of approximately $36 million per yearwhile APS has a budget of almost $1.4 billion.
Clarke County is Georgia’s smallest county in landing area and the UGA, a tax-exempt institution, occupies about 30% of the county’s total area. The population of the department is estimated at 128,711 people and the median household income is $40,363. Atlanta, in 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, vice president of communications for the Chick-Fil-a Peach Bowl, the Bowl is the sole program sponsor in the Atlanta area for all high schools in the Atlanta Public School System. . . In that press release, the Bowl said it was the source of nearly $3 million in funding for each school’s programs.
For the past 10 years, the University of Georgia Chapter of the NFF has donated $5,000 annually to schools in 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 in 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 funds provided by the UGA Chapter of the NFF, Georgia Power is underwriting a grant for Clarke Central High School.
As the spring semester draws to a close, Glenn will still be walking the halls of Clarke Central, conversing with his students until the end. He looks forward to his favorite day: graduation.
Glenn will be the first there, watching his student-athletes cross the threshold into a fulfilling life, equipped with the skills they need to succeed long after high school.
“I love seeing a kid succeed,” Glenn said. “It’s all my thing. If I see a child succeeding, I’ve done a great job.
The triumphs of these students have convinced these educators that the program works, and Glenn and Collier hope to see continued expansion of the program.
“We’ve shown that it helps our student-athletes a lot,” Collier said, “we really want to keep pushing this thing forward as much as we can.”
Some of the same athletes who have benefited from the program would also like to see it grow.
“I think Play it Smart…should expand to all of northeast Georgia,” said Glenn alumnus Zay Brown.
And if Brown had his way, there’s one man he’d want to lead: Tommy Glenn.
“He’s the person to follow 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.