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IHSA Board of Directors Reverses Its Executive Director's Ruling; 4 Mooseheart Students Are Eligible

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Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart addresses the media at a late-evening news conference following the Ramblers' basketball game at Kirkland-Hiawatha. The news conference was set following the decision by the IHSA Board of Directors to overturn a prior decree by IHSA Executive Director Martin Hickman and declare four Mooseheart student-athletes eligible for the remainder of their high school careers, through the spring of 2014. Those student-athletes, standing behind Hart are, from left. Wal Khat (in shirt and tie), Akim Nyang, Mangisto Deng and Makur Puou. At right is attorney Peter G. Rush of the Chicago law firm of K&L Gates LLP, which represented Mooseheart in the matter.

MOOSEHEART, Dec. 11 - While the overwhelming sentiment among some, regarding four South Sudanese students at Mooseheart and their ruling of ineligibility by the Illinois High School Association was “let them play” -- to the young men themselves, there was another issue more central: “Can we stay?”

And to that, Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart had a simple and emphatic response; the same response he would have given any of the other 210 boys and girls currently on-campus: Yes.

Hart reiterated that statement late Monday evening when discussing the early-evening decision by the IHSA Board of Directors to reverse the ineigibility decree from IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman -- and to allow Mangisto Deng, Wal Khat, Akim Nyang and Makur Puou to be eligible to compete in interscholastic competition for the Red Ramblers, through to their expected graduations from Mooseheart High School in spring 2014.

“They’re here in America; they’re going to live the American dream,” Hart said. “They’re going to get that high school education and have that opportunity to go to college and then go back to South Sudan and make a difference in their homeland. That’s what South Sudan needs -- educated men and women to come back and help them.”

At that point, the crowd -- numbering roughly half the fans who watched the Ramblers defeat Kirkland-Hiawatha 66-28 and who stayed for a postgame news conference on the boys’ eligibility ruling -- burst into applause.

That cheer highlighted the emotions at the news conference, which came at the end of a day where the drama had swung from IHSA headquarters in Bloomington to the game itself in Kirkland, with reverberations also on the Mooseheart campus as the news was made public.

Since the original ruling had been made on Nov. 29, the story of the quartet’s eligibility had moved from athletic courts to courtrooms. A Temporary Restraining Order was put in place by Kane County Judge David Akemann on Dec. 4 pending the IHSA Board of Directors' decision. That court order allowed the three basketball-playing students -- Deng, Puou and Nyang -- to continue to play. Khat is a cross country runner and his season had already ended. That temporary restraining order was lifted Tuesday with the student athletes' eligibility restored by the IHSA Board of Directors.

Mooseheart’s lead attorney through the process was Peter G. Rush from the Chicago law firm K & L Gates LLP.

“The most riveting story I heard this week was when the boys came to Mr. Hart, and Mr. Hart said ‘why are so unhappy? Why are you so upset?’” Rush said.

“They said, ‘We’re afraid that if the IHSA is to declare us ineligible, you will send us back to Sudan. What Mr. Hart, (Superintendent of Education) Gary Urwiler, and the entire Mooseheart community said in response, was ‘Never.  We will love you and we will stand by you, and we will stand next to you, no matter what happens.’ ”

Monday’s decision from the IHSA Board of Directors ended the saga. Nine of the 10 voting members were present, and Board President Dan Klett, principal at Wauconda High School, addressed the media via a conference call after the unanimous decision was reached to allow the students to compete.

Each of the South Sudanese students explained how they came to Mooseheart, what the conditions of their lives had been before leaving South Sudan and what were their aspirations for the future.

“A lot of it had to do with the interviews we conducted with the students today,” Klett said. “As they told their story and how they got from the Sudan to Kenya to Chicago, from a lot of the questions that we asked, it was fairly clear from our standpoint that the students weren’t aware of everything that was going on.”

The boys came to Mooseheart through a referral by Mark Adams, founder of the the A-Hope (African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education) Foundation. The fact that “Hoop” is in the organization’s name raised questions from IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman. When further questions were raised by one of the IHSA’s member schools, Hickman initiated an investigation -- the result of which was his Nov. 29 decision to rule the Mooseheart quartet ineligible.

Through the IHSA’s decision, the school was notified that any future students who come to the school via the A-Hope Foundation will be ruled ineligible. Mooseheart is further ineligible for the 2013 Class 1A boys basketball tournament, pending:

1) Review and refinement of the admissions process to assure compliance with IHSA By-laws and Procedures.

2) Training and Education program for all Mooseheart coaches and administrators to assure compliance with IHSA By-laws, with particular focus on the unique structure of Mooseheart within the IHSA;

3.) Submission of a Compliance Plan.

But, the IHSA Board of Directors also found reason to doubt the firm connection between the foundation and the students, and noted in its written statement following the hearing that it found “the boys were taken advantage by A-Hope Foundation and people related to that organization.”

Hickman had ruled the Mooseheart students ineligible under its prohibitions on recruiting students based on their athletic prowess. Klett said a different image emerged as the students told their stories to the Board of Directors.

“They were just looking for an opportunity to get to the United States, to get an education so ultimately they could take their education and go back and help their own country,” Klett said.

That same sentiment came through the news conference in Kirkland as each of the boys stepped to the microphone.

“My dream is to go to college and get my education,” Puou said.

The boys discussed their hopes and dreams for their futures after graduating from high school. Khat said he wants to be a pilot or an air mechanic. Deng said he wants to be a businessman. All said they wish to return to South Sudan to help their country.

“My country needs businessmen and doctors and a lot of things,” Deng said. “I want to be an educated man. My country, South Sudan, doesn’t need basketball players or singers or things like that.”

Rush spoke at the Kirkland press conference of the experience of hearing the boys tell their stories. The hearing at the IHSA was closed to the media and the public.

“It was riveting in there, to watch the student-athletes tell their stories . . . to tell of their own lives and to share it in a language that was not their original tongue, in front of a group of strangers,” Rush said. “Poise would be an understatement. Courage would be an understatement. Leadership would be a fair statement. They were absolutely extraordinary.”

Through the two-week process, one thing never wavered: Mooseheart’s support of its students, which is the same as it has been for 99 years and for more than  12,000 students who have attended the campus for children in-need. In interview after interview, Hart reiterated the support the campus offers not only for these four, but for all 210 currently living on the 1,000-acre campus between Batavia and North Aurora.

“We love these children, and we’re glad to be able to care for them as they came over from South Sudan,” Hart said. “As you witness tonight, they’re gentle giants. They’re just boys, and they want to have fun playing basketball.”

Since its founding, Mooseheart has operated a complete, accredited kindergarten-through-high-school academic program, plus art, music, vocational training and interscholastic sports. It is an extremely nurturing and student-tailored program, with an average student-teacher ratio of 12-1.
Mooseheart students who complete their studies with a 3.0 GPA or better (4.0=A) are eligible for up to five years of annually renewable scholarship funding, covering tuition, room and board in an amount comparable to that required for an in-state student at an Illinois public university.
Mooseheart is currently home to roughly 210 students, ranging in age from preschoolers to high school seniors. Applications for admission to Mooseheart are considered from any family whose children are, for whatever reason, lacking a stable home environment. Mooseheart boasts its own U.S. Post Office and a fully functioning branch of Fifth Third Bank.

In addition to Mooseheart, Moose International also supports Moosehaven, a 70-acre retirement community near Jacksonville, FL founded in 1922; and conducts more than $70 million worth of community service programs annually.



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