I am incensed! After a long Skype conversation with my friend Kim, I learned a lot about where our priorities are in this country. Kim, her husband Todd, and her son, Dawson, have been hosting Pablo, an international exchange student from Spain. By all accounts (and photos on Facebook), Pablo is a mature, delightful and charming guest who attends Chiles High School with Dawson. Both Dawson and Pablo are passionate about soccer (among other things) and Pablo has introduced a perspective to the sport to Dawson and others at Chiles. That, in fact, is one of the goals of Rotary International that provides structure for the program through which Pablo came to the United States. Rotary has long been an part of the Tallahassee community, providing service to others as well as opportunities for many students to come to Florida and enrich and enhance the lives of their host families as well as learning more about themselves as ambassadors for their cultures. Rotary not only finds appropriate homes for exchange students from all over the world, but they follow up with students and families hosting social gatherings and opportunities for networking.
Pablo is lucky to be with the Engstroms. They are an extraordinary family. Community service and activism are part of their fiber and I cannot imagine a better family with whom to spend the academic year. They are lucky to have Pablo as well. What wonderful insight into the life of teenagers in another country, not to mention the fabulous food that Kim has photographed and posted on Facebook!! So, here’s the problem. Dawson plays junior varsity soccer at Chiles. Pablo would like to play varsity soccer at Chiles. This should not be an issue at all. Taking part in extracurricular activities at a host school seems like a given, but apparently not in Florida.
The Florida High School Athletic Association is a private non-profit organization that governs high school sports and determines who is and is not eligible to play in any sport. Their behavior does not, however, match their statements on the FHSAA website. They recognize that a student’s education goes beyond the classroom and, according to the website, “Everyone agrees that the youth of Florida deserve the best possible education.” I would like to point out that generalizations that begin with the word “everyone” send up red flags with me, not to mention the misspellings and poor grammar on the website that represents a disregard for the English language and education in general. It is obvious from the website that, although the FHSAA makes a case for sportsmanship and cooperation among member schools, it easily excludes exchange students based on the FHSAA’s perception of recruitment.
Back to Pablo, Dawson, and the Engstroms. Once Kim and Todd found out that Pablo needed to be deemed eligible by the FHSAA to play varsity soccer at Chiles High School, they filled out and submitted form EL4 — Foreign Exchange Students and Other International Students — including transcripts in both Spanish and English and any and all supporting documentation. Michael Colby, CMAA, Director of Eligibility, decided that Pablo was not eligible to play because Dawson was already on a team (does this make any sense to anyone?) and that Pablo may have been recruited. Does this imply that Kim and Todd traveled to Spain to seek out a soccer player for Chiles, had him sponsored through Rotary and then hosted him for a year in their home? If this sounds ridiculous to you, it does to me as well and I am embarrassed for my former home state and for my country. Are we that inhospitable to a student from another country being sponsored by an international service organization? What is the FHSAA thinking? What purpose is served by not allowing Pablo to play?
The application can be appealed but by that time soccer season will be over and the lessons learned about how policy effects students. What must Pablo and his family think about Florida and the people who live there? I want someone to apologize to the Engstroms, to Pablo and to his family for making this so difficult. Kim says that Pablo is taking the disappointment with grace and is looking forward to playing tennis for Chiles this spring. I hope that anyone reading this who knows someone in Rotary will say something so that other exchange students do not have to see the “win at all costs” attitude that underpins how Florida governs interscholastic athletic programs.