Home-schoolers turn to public schools for support

Families split on extracurricular participation

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Rebecca Stephens loves music. But the 14-year-old home-school student's parents didn't have the expensive equipment necessary to develop their daughter's knowledge and love of her favorite subject.

So the Stephenses, taxpayers in their school district, turned to their local public education system for help. For the past three years Rebecca has been able to participate in the Bullock Creek Public Schools music program.

Rebecca has played in the Bullock Creek band at various levels. She began in the sixth-grade band, but due to her previous experience playing the piano, she was able to proceed directly to the eighth-grade band. Last year, while still in eighth grade, she even played with the varsity band.

How did the district react to taking on a home-schooler?

"Everyone at the school was very warm and accommodating," Rebecca's mother, Susan, recalls. She says when she approached Bullock Creek officials, they were completely open to working with the family's schedule and required no records or exams to be presented in order for Rebecca to participate in band. The school was even willing to fill out a report card every marking period on Rebecca's progress in the band.

Rebecca will not continue in Bullock Creek's band next year, due to her involvement in other activities, but is grateful for the opportunity that the district provided her with.

Rebecca is one of a growing number of home-schoolers in Michigan who are taking advantage of their local public schools' extracurricular programs and non-core classes including foreign language, art, and, of course, music.

Margaret Lee, assistant principal at Herbert H. Dow High School in Midland, said her school is open to home-schoolers participating in non-core classes and has had several students participate in the past. Dow has only one requirement: that participating home-school students reside within the boundaries of the Midland Public School District.

The Michigan State Department of Education estimates that though there are almost 2,000 home-schoolers who reported to the state last year, there are thousands more who did not. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, parents in Michigan may choose to operate a home-school education program, which does not involve any reporting to the state, or they may choose to operate a nonpublic school and submit enrollment figures every year. Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., (www.nheri.org) estimates there are as many as 95,000 students in Michigan who are educated at home.

Numbers like this are sure to draw attention from politicians, and some officials have already begun looking at ways to expand home and public school partnerships. In 1999, Michigan Education Report reported that Rep. Judson Gilbert, R-Algonac, and Gov. John Engler attempted to open up public school sports teams to home-schoolers, but the proposed legislation died in committee.

One factor currently keeping home-schoolers off most public school sports teams is the eligibility rules of the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Jack Roberts, the MHSAA's executive director, told The Detroit News that the MHSAA's rules do not expressly prohibit home schoolers from participating, but there are "certain eligibility rules and standards that need to be met by all high school students, public, private and otherwise."

These rules include passing 20 credit hours a semester, not having been enrolled in more than eight semesters, and not changing schools unless a move is involved. These rules make it difficult for some home-schoolers to prove their eligibility.

But not all home-schooling families are eager for their children to participate in the public schools' extracurricular activities. In 1999, a survey of state home-school association presidents conducted by the Home School Legal Defense Association found 66 percent opposed to participation, while 34 percent believed the public schools' programs should be opened to home-school students.

Many home-schoolers who shun public school extracurricular activities say they fear that government regulation will follow their participation, and frustration with intrusive government regulation is a key reason they home-school in the first place.