Dan McGrath, Chicago Tribune Sports Editor's matchlees prose says it all:
Teacher's call reversed, putting teen athlete back in the game
March 23, 2009
The closest Chris Wolf got to watching his students at North Lawndale College Prep compete in this weekend's Class 3A state basketball tournament was a television set. And it was probably for the best.
Wolf, a 35-year-old math teacher, is not at all comfortable being in the center of a storm, but that's where he has found himself the last three weeks after turning in a star player whom he suspected of cheating on a makeup exam. Jonathan Mills was suspended from the team and sidelined for the state playoffs.
But his mother hired an attorney who sued school officials and got a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the penalty, on the grounds it would do Mills irreparable harm.
A 6-foot-5 senior with Division I college talent, Mills was in the lineup when the Phoenix lost to Champaign Centennial in Friday's 3A semifinal, then beat Leo in Saturday's third-place game.
Wolf was back in Chicago, his safety a concern. North Lawndale's team is the pride of its struggling West Side community, and some eyes view Wolf as a traitor, even though he is a basketball fan of the first order and the team's unofficial academic adviser, having spent many hours helping players (and non-players) do the work to stay eligible and qualify for college.
"I know Chris to be a teacher who goes above and beyond the call of duty in helping students," North Lawndale Principal Rob Karpinsky said.
Karpinsky, a former Catholic priest, has seen his faith tested by recent events. In November, three of North Lawndale's best and brightest students drowned in the Fox River when they took paddle boats out after hours during a leadership retreat at Camp Algonquin. The boats had been taken out of service for the winter and capsized shortly after being put in the frigid water. Adrian Alexander, Melvin Choice and Jimmy Avant died in the accident.
"You can say it's been a difficult year," Karpinsky said.
Mills' class was scheduled to take the Algebra II exam on Feb. 23, but he asked for an extension. North Lawndale had won the Public League championship the night before and the team enjoyed a postgame get-together at the ESPN Zone.
After Mills missed one makeup date, Wolf agreed to meet him at school at 6:45 a.m. on Feb. 24 to administer the test, and the player scored a 96. After Mills left the room, Wolf said, he came across evidence that he'd had help. He won't discuss particulars, because of the litigation, but he was certain, and he immediately began agonizing over what to do next.
"So much of what the school community prides itself on is athletic performance," Wolf said. "I knew it wouldn't be pretty."
He called his dad in Wisconsin, "the ultimate moral majority in the family. He told me to pretend I didn't see anything. If he says that ... ."
But Wolf couldn't let the matter slide. North Lawndale is a charter school, with more control over its curriculum than a typical public school, and a "do-the-right-thing" imperative is essential to its mission and to the life lessons it tries to teach.
"I try to be fair, and there's no way I could look at the other kids, the kids who work their butts off, if I hadn't followed through on this," Wolf said. "You want kids to get the grades, but they have to earn them."
Karpinsky and school President John Horan say they had no reason to doubt Wolf's version of events.
"Sports is a major factor that attracts kids, and we're very proud of our sports teams," Horan said. "There's a real balancing act between athletics and our academic mission, which is to prepare kids from an underserved community to graduate from college. Part of the challenge is to never see athletics as more important than that."
Mills has steadfastly denied cheating, telling the Tribune he didn't have to, that he was passing the course. Wolf acknowledges that he was. But the teacher believes he did the right thing, and he's gratified by the school's support.
"This isn't about squeaking by, about turning an 'F' into a 'C.' It's about performing in the classroom as well as on the basketball court," Horan said. "We want to create a situation in which our kids succeed academically, and we try to be flexible, but you can't be an enabler. There are bottom-line standards, IHSA standards and our own standards.
"And our standards are pretty high."
Basketball ends, for even the most talented kids. Life goes on, and for the kids of North Lawndale it's a daily challenge. Wolf and his colleagues want students to be prepared. Doing the right thing is part of the deal.