News: CJ Exclusives

Homeschoolers Branching Out

Sports, music and debate competitions among extra-curriculars

The popular image of homeschooling is a mother and her children leaning over the kitchen table or gathered in the family room with their schoolbooks. This is not inaccurate for most families, but it is far from complete.

Studies show homeschooled students are involved in many after-school activities along with their public and private-school counterparts, such as scouting, 4-H, church groups, and sports leagues. Yet home educators also are building their own programs to provide more of the traditional high-school activities, such as varsity athletics, band, and academic clubs.

Sports

Many homeschoolers play baseball, soccer, and football in local recreational leagues. These tend to focus on younger grades, knowing that promising players will usually graduate into high-school athletics. This avenue is closed to homeschoolers, since rules for the N.C. High School Athletic Association don’t allow students from nonpublic schools to participate in public school sports.

In response, homeschooling families in many towns have organized sports programs of their own. Some are credible competitors in the private school leagues, but finding a venue for statewide competition can still be a problem.

North Carolinians for Home Education, the state’s largest homeschooling organization, sponsored the sixth annual North Carolina State Homeschool Basketball Tournament in February. This year, the league expanded to hold east and west divisional playoffs, and the tournament has been recognized as the largest state championship for homeschoolers in the country.

Ernie Hodges, a longtime coach of youth basketball, softball, and cross-country teams in Winston-Salem, has been the head of NCHE’s athletic programs since they began. The league includes 42 basketball teams in 11 cities. New programs are proposed for the Charlotte and Asheville areas, he said. Tournaments are also being conducted in volleyball and golf, and more sports are being considered. “Boys’ and girls’ soccer is developing, though we’ll probably wait until this fall for the first tournament” to even out the athletic calendar, Hodges said.

While some private and Christian schools accept individual homeschooled students, their own league rules keep them busy playing other school teams. “It’s getting progressively more difficult to schedule teams in the Christian school leagues because of their own [scheduling] requirements,” Hodges said. NCHE’s league ensures that homeschool teams continue to have a competitive home of their own.

It has a character of its own, too, Hodges said. Competition is keen and both college recruiters and ACC referees have come to the NCHE tournament, but Hodges said the off-court interaction is more constructive. “It breeds camaraderie between teams,” he said, “because they have the same [academic] stresses and pressures on them. The students come away from the tournament encouraged after spending the weekend with students from other towns.”

“I see parents from opposing teams on the sidelines, discussing curriculum” between games, Hodges said. “I’ve overheard some of the school teams saying it would be embarrassing to lose to ‘a bunch of homeschoolers,’ but we don’t get the level of viciousness in our own tournament.”

Embarrassing or not, the Forsyth Home Educators team, which Hodges coached for several years, is currently 4-0 against area private schools this season. The Winston-Salem Journal includes the FHE scores without comment on the high school sports page, and two local television stations covered the final rounds played in Greensboro in February.

Music

Homeschoolers are also gathering to work on the fine arts together, with a number of band programs available in the state.

One of the oldest is in High Point. Dr. Dennis Renfroe teaches at John Wesley College. Thirteen years ago, he said, the college suggested that since they didn’t have a regular band at the college, he might use their facilities to start a program for local homeschoolers. It would be a way to introduce the college to homeschoolers, and he could stay active with a band program, he said.

The High Point Homeschoolers Band, as he named it, now has 48 students. The instrumentation is pretty well-balanced, Renfroe said, though light on the more expensive instruments usually purchased by the school. Like small ensembles always have, they adapt the parts to fit the available musicians. “We don’t have some of the larger percussion,” he said, “and we don’t have a tuba; I’ve transcribed the tuba part for our electric bass player.”

Although not a home educator himself, Renfroe said, his students have responded well to high expectations. “I’ve found homeschoolers are generally very self-motivated. They have to be, for the rest of their studies,” he said.

“I don’t tell them a particular piece is too difficult for them; I just hand out the music and we get started. I’ve got sixth- and seventh-graders who are playing ninth-grade literature,” Renfroe said. Some of his students have gone on to play in college ensembles.

Meredith Stephens, a homeschooling mother of four in Thomasville, started a different kind of ensemble. Stephens has played flute since she was a child, and this year she organized a flute choir with 13 students. They recently gave their first public concert at the Archdale Public Library.

“I’m really excited at what we’ve been able to do,” she said. “I’ve had offers to come teach a program in north Greensboro as well, but I had to turn them down. It would take too much time that I need to spend homeschooling my own children to do that, too.”

Academics

Of course, homeschoolers have attracted attention for success in high-profile academic events such as the National Spelling Bee and the Olympiad of the Mind. There are opportunities for advanced academics on the local level as well.

Joseph Wirtz, for example, offers tutorial programs in logic, speech, and Christian apologetics, bringing parents and homeschool students into the classroom together. His most popular program is a debate school, which he teaches across eastern North Carolina. The classes, sponsored by Wirtz’s nonprofit, The Cultural Commission, were offered in six locations this year from Greenville to Concord, and may expand to Wilmington and Boone next year.

Even though they are spread out, the clubs are not isolated. “We meet every other week,” Wirtz said, “and between classes the students take part in a moderated forum on the Internet, with reading and discussion assignments.” The forum is also a place to hone their arguments, as they prepare to debate both the positive and the negative case of every resolution.

“I limit the club size to 12 students,” he said. “Any more than that, and I can’t spend the time listening and coaching every individual in the class.”

Wirtz just completed a debate tournament on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. Thirty-two students debated, and more came to learn from the competition. Graduates are involved in college-level forensics, too.

“Debate is not just a competitive sport,” he said. “It’s a life skill, learning to analyze a proposition and clearly express your reasoned opinions. You can listen to political leaders, even, fumbling for words, but this is something we can train.”

Hal Young is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.