Home-school athletes tackle more options

Home-school athletes tackle more options

July 18th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

The Chattanooga Patriots, with players who are home-school students, compete in the gymnasium at First Church of the Nazarene in Brainerd in 2008.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.


• What: The Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association Annual Education Expo

• Where: Camp Jordan Arena, East Ridge

• When: 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

• Cost: $4 both days for members; $8 nonmembers

Source: Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association


• 83,000: Estimated home-schooled students in Tennessee

• 1,500: Families in Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association, the main organization for home-schoolers in the Chattanooga area

• 50: Students in the group's athletics programs five years ago

• 450: Students in its athletics programs today

Source: Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association

Five years ago, it was hard to imagine that home-schoolers would be stressing over their batting averages, away games and college athletics recruiters.

But a new wave of home-school families, more organized and growing, say adding the perk of athletics programs has been a huge draw for parents who want to pull their kids out of public or private schools but worry about them losing out on opportunities such as competitive sports.

"Families who previously didn't have any need for our services came on board for sports," said Janell Bontekoe, who coaches a girls' soccer team for the Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association, the main organization for home-schoolers in the area. "It encouraged people to continue to home-school."

The association has grown more than 20 percent in the last five years to 1,500 families, Bontekoe said, and much of that growth can be credited to its athletic program.

Such programs for home-schoolers are popping up all over the country, especially in larger metro areas, because many states limit or don't allow home-schooled students to play on public school sports teams.

In Tennessee, that will change this fall, when home-schoolers will be allowed to play on public school teams for the first time.

The number of home-schoolers nationwide is hard to track, but officials with the national home-school association, the Home School Legal Defense Association, say that, as the education movement has modernized, the number of families swells 18 to 25 percent each year.

The state estimates that more than 83,000 children are home-schooled in Tennessee.

And athletics provides important benefits, advocates say.

"Sports is definitely a way home-schoolers connect. It answers one of the big questions that people ask about home-schooling: What about socialization?" said Jeremiah Lorrig, spokesman for Home School Legal Defense.


The Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association Patriots started with boys' soccer and basketball five years ago with about 50 children. Now the program has expanded to 450 participants with cross country, track, girls' junior varsity and varsity teams in basketball, soccer and volleyball, and boys' junior varsity and varsity baseball.

Next year, they hope to start girls' softball teams as well as boys' and girls' golf and tennis teams, and some parents want to launch a Patriots football team if they can find financial support for the program.

Parents say home-school athletics not only allow their children to mingle with other students, but sports also give them a legitimate opportunity to compete.

The Patriots play public and private school teams. In its second year, the varsity boys' basketball team won a national championship at the National Association of Christian Athletics. A dozen students have received scholarships to play sports in college, mainly at small Christian schools.

"Our first year or two, people didn't take us very serious, but the longer we have been playing and the more we have won, other teams have started to respect the program a little more," said David Ambrosetti, a home-schooling dad who coaches the Patriots boys' basketball team. "Other teams scout us now."


Florida, where home-schooled Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow got his start on public school teams, is famously open with home-schooled students, allowing them full access to public sports teams, extracurricular activities and academic classes.

In Tennessee, home-schoolers haven't been allowed to play on public school teams, although some home-schoolers argued their options shouldn't be limited if they are paying the same education-aimed property taxes as other families.

After studying the issue for 10 years, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association passed a rule that allows home-schoolers to try out for public school teams as long as they meet academic requirements and pay special fees.

"It doesn't guarantee them a spot on the roster," said Bernard Childress, executive director of TSSAA. "The ultimate decision is the coach's decision."

Some home-school parents wonder if the rule change will cause their own teams to hemorrhage talent.

One of Bontekoe's daughters received a soccer scholarship to Tennessee Temple University for this fall. After home-schooling her seven children for 14 years, Bontekoe said, it was thrilling to know she not only taught her daughter but coached her for the next step.

Other parents shouldn't miss out on that feeling, she said.

"[The new state rules] will take some families. It will allow [public] schools to cherry-pick off the home-school teams," Bontekoe said. "It will be harder for us to fill as competitive teams as we could in the past."

But, she said, "We plan to rise to that challenge."