Conference Call: Cole decided not to allow a 13th-grader in the charter league. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On Monday, the boys basketball team from Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School lost, 79-71, at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington. But Chavez is still having a fine season, its first as an independent, with a 15–11 record playing against some of the area’s strongest programs.

Markee Mazyck had a team-high 15 points for Chavez in the loss. Last year, in its winter sports roundup, the Washington Post named Mazyck as the player of the year in the Washington Charter School Athletic Association (WCSSA) and identified Mazyck as a senior. Eligibility-wise, just as the Post indicated, he was a senior in the 2008–09 season. But Mazyck is still playing at Chavez this year, and he’s playing well enough to win the league-best award all over again. If, that is, his school hadn’t abandoned the conference just so he could play ball there for one more year.

The Chavez basketball story is an odd one. Anybody who views the District’s charter schools­—which are public schools run independently of the D.C. Public Schools bureaucracy—as the Wild West of the education realm could find some fodder here. But it’s also easy to put a sweet spin on the situation, to view this as school officials throwing out the rule book just to help a kid out.

Folks from Chavez prefer the latter version.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” says Chavez athletic director Ernesto Natera. “This is a one-time deal.”

You can’t blame a student for wanting to keep his high school career going. Mazyck’s still attending Chavez and finishing up his diploma after some stumbles early on, says Natera. And, everybody agrees, he’s real good at basketball. So why wouldn’t he want to play on the basketball team again, and get an extra year of looks from college coaches? And to point out the obvious: He’s a kid.

You can blame the school for the situation, however, because the Chavez administrators—all adults—knew that the WCSSA rulebook forbade fifth-year athletes and, one could argue, shouldn’t have forced the matter just for one student, especially a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder whose athletic talents gave him options not available to lesser ballers. If they just wanted to go the extra mile for the player, the school’s coaches could have, for example, worked to get him into a prep school where “redshirt seniors” are the norm. Or, if getting a college scholarship is the ultimate goal, they could have shopped his highlight reel from last year’s player-of-the-year season a lot harder and longer.

And even though the Chavez contingent insists that everything they did was for Mazyck, the school’s interests are conflicted: Having a great player and a good basketball program can be used to give Chavez a bigger name in the community and make the place more attractive to prospective students, and athletes, who have a lot of charter schools to choose from.

But if Chavez did indeed decide to let the kid keep playing for the noblest of reasons, they did it the right way. Natera didn’t try to hide Mazyck’s fifth-year status from league brass (though that might have been pretty hard to do given his status as the WCSSA’s reigning player of the year). Before the season, Natera went to Don Cole, commissioner of the WCSSA, and told him that Chavez wanted to give Mazyck an extra year of basketball eligibility. Natera says he pointed out to Cole that Mazyck played very little basketball his freshman year of high school, and that the kid’s birthday—he turned 18 in late summer, according to school records—puts him well within the age limitations for D.C. athletics.

Cole told Natera that the league couldn’t allow that situation. Cole still feels burned by the way things were with the Marriott Hospitality Charter School’s basketball program, which was exposed as an anything-goes sham by the Post a few years back.

“It’s a mentality that shouldn’t even be here,” says Cole. “We’re trying to clean up the image, and a lot of people look at charter school athletics as some sort of semi-pro setup where anybody can play. We don’t want that.”

So Natera took the Chavez boys team out of the league but left the girls basketball team and all other Chavez sports programs in WCSSA. Natera says he intends to apply for readmission of the boys team to the league next season.

But after getting pooh-poohed by WCSSA, Chavez went to get the blessing of Marcus Ellis, the new D.C. Public Schools athletic director. If Ellis gave thumbs-down to Natera’s request to sanction its roster, fifth-year player and all, Chavez would have had a very hard time putting together a full schedule. Chavez, for example, wouldn’t have been allowed to play traditional DCPS teams including Cardozo or H.D. Woodson—both of which Chavez beat this season.

Though DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee briefly touted fifth-year eligibility early in her tenure here, she backed off putting such an allowance in place after learning that athletic officials in most jurisdictions (including public school leagues in Maryland and Virginia and the powerful confederation of Washington-area Catholic high schools) not only don’t allow fifth-year students to play sports but also prohibit their schools from even playing teams from jurisdictions where fifth-year players are allowed.

Despite WCSSA’s objection and the DCPS’s own rules against fifth-year players, Ellis sanctioned Chavez’s boys basketball team.

“I can’t figure out why [Ellis is sanctioning] schools for DCPS,” says Cole. “I don’t know if he looked at everybody’s transcript and said he doesn’t care, or if it’s just laziness, or if he’s just saying, ‘Hey, they’re charter schools! Let’s let them do whatever they want!’ I don’t understand that outlook, to tell you the truth.”

Natera says he’s done nothing wrong. Going by school years alone, as Natera points out, there are a lot of games being played with players’ eligibility in prep sports. For example, one of the top players on the local scene—North Carolina Tar Heel to-be Kendall Marshall, now a senior at Arlington’s Bishop O’Connell—was in sixth grade when I first wrote about him.

That was seven years ago, for a story titled “The Class of 2009.” He’s not in the Class of 2009 anymore.

“Do the math, that’s what people say to me all the time about kids [and eligibility],” Natera says. “People reclassify kids for sports all over, that’s been going on for so long around here. You do it in eighth grade, it’s fine—but ninth grade, it’s not? It’s something different? I can tell you this: We don’t reclassify students [for athletic reasons] at this school. Never. Nobody. We don’t want any stigma. And my kid is the right age. Other kids are older than he is and still playing. This is a hardship case, a special case. And if the kid sucked, nobody would care, and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

So why did DCPS sanction the Chavez team this season? Ellis did not respond, but DCPS explains in a statement that the charter schools it sanctions “must agree to fully comply” with its eligibility rules, which currently permit students “to play a fifth season if they have not participated all 5 years.”

Natera, who says he made DCPS fully aware of Mazyck’s situation, says he’d do it all again.

“We did it right, and we did it for the right reasons,” he says. “I got sanctioned. We put it out there. Everybody knew it.”

Not everybody.

“I found out a couple days before we played them about the fifth-year player, when people in the local community told me,” says Martin Keithline, head basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Bishop McNamara, a Forestville school whose squad faced Chavez early this season. “They were sanctioned by D.C., so, at that time, there wasn’t much we could do, with the game already scheduled. But if we knew, we wouldn’t have scheduled them. What could we do?”

McNamara was defeated by Chavez, 67–57. Mazyck had 32 points.