The Public High League once dominated the local gridiron scene, and suburban districts were perennial doormats. Now it's the other way around. Ever wonder why?

"We're an equal-opportunity program," says VICC's Bruce Ellerman. "Any student who has not had disruptive behavior -- a B student, an F student, an A student -- is eligible for our program. If parents in the city are making these choices, not because someone's recruiting them but because they're targeting the best football program -- well, we send our materials to all eligible students. Applications aren't processed according to grades, or even attendance. It's simply first-come, first-serve."

Still, Ellerman won't say the program isn't vulnerable to abuse. "I certainly wouldn't want to testify under oath that [recruiting] doesn't happen, or that it never happens," he says. "But it would not be in compliance with the settlement."

Mark Gilliland
Darrell Jackson (left), the area's top-rated prospect, lives in St. Louis but attends Webster Groves High, where he's coached by Cliff Ice
Mark Gilliland
Darrell Jackson (left), the area's top-rated prospect, lives in St. Louis but attends Webster Groves High, where he's coached by Cliff Ice

Ensconced behind an ornate desk in his office at the new Vashon High School building, Floyd Irons is fighting fire with fire. The former head basketball coach at Vashon and now its athletic director, Irons has overseen the construction of a new school building on Cass Avenue, with a state-of-the-art gym and a new football stadium for what is, statistically, one of the lowest-performing high schools in the city -- and the best prep basketball program in the area. Funding for the new building was authorized by the St. Louis school board as a remedy for the school's poor performance and as an improvement on the former edifice, located in one of the most depressed areas of St. Louis.

Now Irons, who has himself deflected accusations of recruiting over the years, is using the new facilities as a selling point to keep students from his district in the city. The county schools' money gives them an unfair advantage over city schools, Irons argues. "Many of the kids in public schools are leaving programs that didn't have the amenities that county schools had. They probably got excited just like any kid would. Then it's easy for the county coaches to use the desegregation program to recruit. Our kids deserve the same things. They deserve all the niceties any other kid deserves."

The new building and its accompanying athletic facilities have already gotten results, Irons reports. "The football program has gone from just being able to field a team of 20 kids, to 30 last year, and now we have 80 on our varsity and 40 to 50 on our B team," he says. (That's an aberration in the PHL; Gateway Tech has the league's next-largest varsity squad, with 35 players.)

The transfer program, meanwhile, is sputtering toward its expected end, slated for five years from now. But participation has declined by nearly 300 students in the past five years, and the program might end sooner than planned. When VICC took over four years ago, the plan was to continue transfers through 2008-09 and allow students enrolled in any grade in a county school district at that point to graduate in the same system. But the program, funded by the state until 1999, is now funded by the participating school districts through VICC. And the "voluntary" aspect doesn't just apply to transferring students; it also applies to the school districts' participation. In other words, districts can choose to withdraw from the desegregation program. That's exactly what the Ladue School District did last year. And more may follow if they decide the cost of transporting each transfer student is too great in the face of the state's continuing budget crisis.

Regardless, Floyd Irons wants to hold on to as many city kids as he can. Some of his players, he says, are coming to him from other zones inside the city. Ultimately, he'd like to see the city retain enough players to resurrect all the old PHL programs.

"Then we'll again see a shift in power," he predicts.

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