Never Too Small to Break the Rules

Andrea Loring got tired of seeing private high schools recruit star basketball players. But she had no idea busting them would bring her such grief.

Andrea Loring is fighting against the tide. Marching toward the cafeteria, she looks in the eyes of every student still lingering in the hallway. "Hugo, you're heading the wrong way," she says to a boy strolling past her. "Eddie, you too," she calls out to a second boy, a sheepish-looking string bean lugging a computer monitor in his arms. "You're going the wrong way." She is smiling. She is enjoying herself. Reaching the cafeteria now with a train of students behind her, she throws her arms around two former pupils, both of whom have dropped by to sample the free soul food that will be offered following today's Black History Month assembly. "Good to see you!" she says to a boy in an orange Fubu baseball jersey. "You're back at Coral Gables, I hear. How's it going?" Loring also reaches out for the boy's friend. "And this one," she adds, beaming with pride, "he's moved on to FIU."

Loring runs the Academy for Community Education (ACE), an alternative high school located in downtown Coral Gables. The school caters to students who have dropped out or who are at risk of dropping out of other public high schools. A self-described "family atmosphere" is fostered at ACE through intensive student counseling, "reverse peer pressure," and a heavy emphasis on academics. "A return to the small-school concept" is the ACE motto, and it's no exaggeration. Only 160 students attend this Miami-Dade County public school, leaving plenty of room to stretch out in the cafeteria as Loring takes the podium.

A sign hovering near her head proclaims "Jaguar Pride." Sports have been an important component at ACE since the school's founding in 1981. The athletics program runs year-round even though the school struggles to field just three sports teams for boys and four for girls. Playing against the tiniest schools in the county (usually small religious academies), ACE owns a decent reputation on the basketball court. In 1995, for instance, the Jaguars boys' team made it to the championship game of the state's Class 1A tournament.

No such luck this year. No chance, even. In the few seasons since ACE's memorable playoff run, the nature of high school basketball in Florida, especially among small schools in Miami-Dade, has changed drastically. Whole teams of talented foreign-exchange students -- several nearly seven feet tall -- have enrolled at five small private schools. All fourteen players on one team hail from outside the United States. Eleven exchange students stock the bench of the defending Class 1A state champions. Prior to the start of this school year, one school recruited and enrolled six players from the Dominican Republic's junior national team. Thanks to the influx of such phenomenal foreign students, these small schools now stand tall enough to conquer traditional big-school powers such as Miami Senior High, whom Northwest Christian Academy defeated this season in a holiday tournament.

Each year in Florida six separate state championships are awarded in basketball. The six divisions, or classes, are designed to allow schools with similar student enrollments to compete against one another. Class 1A consists of schools with the smallest enrollments, Class 6A the largest. At this year's championships, which will be settled this Saturday, March 11, in Lakeland, the most competitive teams weren't to be found among the Class 6A powerhouses, but rather in Class 1A and Class 2A, schools with minuscule enrollments.

That is, until Andrea Loring blew the whistle.

A two-page complaint she sent January 24 to the Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA), the Gainesville-based governing body for high school sports, led to an investigation of Miami's leading Class 1A and Class 2A basketball programs: Berkshire Academy, Miami Christian Academy, Northwest Christian Academy, Champagnat Catholic, and tiny Gettysburg Academy, a school with an enrollment of only 35 students, a star player from the Dominican Republic, and a first-year basketball program that entered the playoffs with a 33-4 record.

The FHSAA promptly documented ineligible students at three of the schools. Three of the Dominican standouts enrolled at Miami Christian Academy had already played four years of high school ball before moving to the United States. A transfer to Northwest Christian had used up his eligibility playing ball in New Hampshire. Eight of the eleven Yugoslavian students playing for Berkshire were determined to have been recruited by the school solely to play sports, a practice explicitly forbidden by FHSAA bylaws. Punishments included season forfeitures, player suspensions, and the removal of teams from the state tournament. The two other schools remain under investigation.

Since filing her complaint, Loring has weathered blistering personal attacks from fans of and administrators at the suspect private schools. The principal of Berkshire Academy, one of two schools Loring identified by name in her complaint (Miami Christian was the other) filed a countercomplaint with the FHSAA, alleging that the mediocre team at ACE also is stocked with ineligible players. Loring's critics have been so vehement in their anger at her that she initially and repeatedly declined to discuss the matter at all.

"I'm a single mother," she explains now, finally speaking on the record. "For the first time in my life I felt scared for my safety and for that of my daughter."

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